What is the future of air travel?

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The Independent Online

Sir Richard Branson appeared on the TV bulletins last week in his trademark open-necked shirt but without his usual perma-grin. It takes a lot to knock his natural exuberance but Britain's favourite entrepreneur knows that his beloved Virgin Atlantic airline is in deep trouble and that government help may be its only chance of survival.

It is not the only one. Other European carriers, notably KLM, Sabena and Swissair, are thought to be on the critical list as a result of the atrocities in the US. Others such as British Airways and Lufthansa will suffer badly as the highly lucrative trans-Atlantic traffic, on which they all depended, nosedives. No one knows when it will bounce back – if ever.

Since 11 September planes have been flying rows of empty seats around the skies above us as terrified travellers either stay home or find other means of transport. The result has been ferocious cost-cutting including the loss of tens of thousands of jobs – 8,200 at BA and Virgin alone – and the grounding of hundreds of aircraft.

Remembering the pain after the Gulf War, when Americans led the exodus from the airways for six to nine months, airlines have been quick to respond this time. They, and their insurers and bankers, know that the situation is now even worse. The Gulf War was, after all, a contained exercise conducted in a far-flung place, which resulted in an Allied forces triumph and the relatively rapid return of confidence.

This time no one can rely on the short-lived 25 per cent fall in passenger traffic experienced during Operation Desert Storm being replicated this time. As one airline chief put it privately: "We don't know if this is the first act of a four-act play or the one and only act before the curtain call."

Yet there is good news in all of this, at least in the short term, for travellers who can conquer their fear of flying. Fares are set to tumble as carriers compete for any intrepid souls who will take to the skies. EasyJet is already offering fares of just £25 to Athens and £20 to Barcelona. The big operators like BA and Virgin are expected to follow suit soon on selected routes – as they did to get bums back on seats after the Gulf War.

"We'll have to offer fares people just can't refuse. Come fly to America for peanuts," explained one airline. But passengers have still got to feel safe. While one hopes the US airports have learned their lesson and are tightening up security, there are increasing fears about some airports in mainland Europe, many popular with holidaymakers, which have not had years of IRA terrorism or the Lockerbie disaster to galvanise them into action.

Pilots and airline bosses fear that southern Europe's Club Med countries could form the weak link. As one pilot said: "British airport security is not perfect but it's the best you can get. But draw a line halfway down Europe and anything south of that pretty much has no security standards at all. They think that it simply is not their problem, something only the British and the Americans need to worry about."

Last week in Palma, Majorca, thousands of British holidaymakers were still being allowed on to planes without even being asked the supposedly mandatory question about whether they packed their own bags or left them unattended. Security seemed as lax as ever.

Behind the scenes, the British government is exerting diplomatic pressure on fellow European Union member states to raise their airport security standards. But British airlines do not expect any overnight results, and some are therefore planning to fill some of the gaps themselves at further enormous cost.

British Midland is planning to hire security contractors at airports where it feels it cannot trust the local authorities to do the job. So its passengers will not only go through the national security checks – such as they are – but will undergo further screening by staff paid for by British Midland who will be expected to work to UK standards. This peace of mind will not come cheap, however, and will undoubtedly take time to put in place. Eventually, the passenger will pick up the bill.