Yesterday British Airways startled the aviation world by introducing a fare from Heathrow to the Chinese capital of pounds 309 return, including UK tax. The Earnings Information section of the Office for National Statistics reveals that this is pounds 42 less than the average adult weekly wage in 1996. The new fare to the People's Republic is the most generous of the latest tranche of BA's World Offer tickets, which includes Belfast or Glasgow to London for pounds 64 return and Birmingham-Paris for pounds 99.
Historically, Peking has been one of the more expensive long-haul destinations from the UK. Only BA and Air China, the state airline, serve the 5,000- mile route direct from London. When BA began flying to Peking in November 1980, its lowest fare was about double this latest ticket price.
A specialist agent who has been sending tourists to the People's Republic for 21 years welcomed the airline's move, and said it could herald a boom in city-break holidays to the Chinese capital. Neil Taylor, managing director of Regent Holidays of Bristol, said: "Together with the cheaper hotel rooms that have recently been introduced, it shows that China is now taking tourism seriously. The move could trigger the development of a whole new short- break market."
Only the hardiest tourist would venture to Peking this month, however, since winters in the capital are harsh and many of the attractions are out-of-doors. BA's fare must be booked by 29 January, but can be used for departures up to 31 March, by which time more benign weather should arrive.
China can be expected to steal a fair amount of east- leaning leisure travel from Russia; BA's lowest fare to St Petersburg, for example, is the same as for Peking, even though the Russian city is far nearer.
Looking west, BA is offering a fare of pounds 299 plus pounds 18.40 tax to Los Angeles and San Francisco, but Virgin Atlantic has introduced a "Megasaver" fare to either Californian city that undercuts this by pounds 10.
Official fares between London and New York, the busiest international air route, have been cut too, but competition is so intense that much lower prices are available through discount agents. Previously, only smaller airlines like Kuwait Airways and El Al offered fares below pounds 200 on the route, but Continental Airlines is selling a pounds 185 ticket on its daily Gatwick-Newark services, through the discount specialists Trailfinders.
These low long-haul fares are a spin-off of the buoyant market for business travel. Though airlines decline to give precise load-factors for first and business cabins, premium seats are selling well and providing high yields. Therefore carriers are prepared to sell off economy space at almost any price.
Fares are also tumbling on planes and trains within Europe. Following the fire in the Channel Tunnel last November, Eurostar is seeking to boost travel with a range of day-trip fares from Waterloo International to France and Belgium starting with a Calais special of pounds 29 return and Brussels for pounds 49. In competition, Virgin Express is charging pounds 79 for flights from Heathrow to the Belgian capital. The coach operators, such as Hoverspeed, have been forced to offer fares at 1970s levels in order to attract custom for their much slower services; Hoverspeed is charging pounds 27 return to Paris or Amsterdam.
Perhaps the fiercest fares battle, though, is taking place within Britain. From Monday, National Express is offering a return fare of pounds 9.99 on any route for travellers aged 50 or over.
In retaliation against cheap coach fares - and discount airlines such as EasyJet - Great North Eastern Railways has cut its one-way fares from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling to London to pounds 19. The airlines have reacted, with BA dropping its lowest return fare between Glasgow and London to pounds 64.
One organisation is bucking the trend for low fares, however. From tomorrow, the minimum tube fare within the central area of the London Underground rises by 9 per cent to pounds 1.20 - the most expensive urban public transport in the world.
t The Long Weekend features a London travel special on pages 11-13, while today's Independent Magazine includes an alphabetical journey around the world.
Ten bargains to take you away
Ten new year travel bargains; fares quoted are adult returns from London, and include all pre-payable taxes.
t Any National Express destination in Britain: pounds 9.99, providing you are over 50 and in possession of a National Express discount coachcard, price pounds 8 for a year.
t Paris or Amsterdam: pounds 27 for a bus-hovercraft combination on Hoverspeed.
t Edinburgh or Glasgow: pounds 38 return on Great North Eastern Railways (0345 225225); pounds 63 return on EasyJet.
t Lille: pounds 39 for a day-trip on Eurostar.
t Brussels: pounds 49 for a Eurostar day-trip; pounds 79 on Virgin Express.
t Belfast: pounds 64 return on British Airways.
t New York: pounds 185 on Continental Airlines, through Trailfinders.
t Los Angeles or San Francisco: pounds 307 return on Virgin Atlantic
t Peking: pounds 309 on British Airways.
t Sydney: pounds 528 on Britannia Airways on 19 or 26 January through Austravel.