Open skies kept on the ground

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The Independent Online
Open skies kept on the ground

The investigation now taking place in the US into the operating and maintenance procedures of ValuJet is a salutary reminder that while low-cost airlines may present minimum financial risk, there are other dangers in air travel that can never be completely overcome by any carrier.

Until the inquiry is complete we cannot know what caused the ValuJet DC-9 to plunge into the Florida Everglades, killing all those on board. The airline may be exonerated. ValuJet and the host of other low-cost carriers that US deregulation has spawned may breathe a sigh of relief.

There is precious little chance, however, of this phenomenon crossing the Atlantic in the foreseeable future. Europe certainly has "no-frills" airlines. Anyone who has ever flown with the French domestic carrier Air Inter could testify to that. But there is a world of difference between no frills and genuinely low-cost air travel. The reason that Europe does not possess the latter lies in the much higher costs that airlines here suffer. These break down into social costs of employment - which the airlines can do little about - and operating costs, predominantly those levied by airports.

In theory there is nothing to prevent any airline within the European Union setting up as a low-cost carrier in another member state and flying to a third member state. British Airways has done it with Deutsche BA in Germany and TAT in France. From 1 January next year any airline will be able to operate domestic services in another member state.

But the prospects of this happening are negligible because the costs of entry are too high. Airport charges at Frankfurt and Paris are, for example, up to 40 per cent higher than those at Heathrow. There is little the EU can do directly about social costs. But if it does want to see Europe's open-skies policy deliver what it is supposed to - more choice and cheaper fares - then it could make a start by breaking the monopolies which ensure that handling charges remain exorbitant