France takes cheap flights to the next level with launch of budget airport in Marseilles

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The Independent Online

The city of Marseilles has seen the future - it has no carpets. A minimalist, no-frills air terminal, intended specifically for low-cost airlines, opened yesterday beside the city's existing airport.

Carpets are replaced by a painted concrete floor. There is no air conditioning. Passengers have to carry their own bags from check-in to security control. There are no luggage trolleys. There are no shuttle buses or swivelling gangways to reach the aircraft. Travellers walk across the tarmac to reach their planes.

Although many such terminals exist at small-town, or secondary airports, this is the first time that a big city airport in Europe has constructed a new terminal which turns back the clock. But MP2, which stands for Marseilles Provence 2, is not so much a glimpse of the past as a glimpse of the future.

The airport at Lyons, a little to the north, is also building a new no-frills terminal specifically for low-cost airlines. It is to open next year. Madrid has reached the same destination by flying in the other direction. The Spanish capital has built a glittering new complex of airport buildings intended for long-distance flights operated by conventional airlines, such as the national flag carrier, Iberia. The original terminal is being "simplified" to offer basic facilities, and reduced charges, for low-price, European flights.

Low-cost companies, led by Ryanair, have transformed the skies of Europe in the past 10 years. Cheap, scheduled air fares have generated unexpected social and cultural changes, including a permanent British settlement of parts of rural France by wage-earners and families, on top of the annual British holiday invasion and the long-established colonies of retired people.

The opening of the new Marseilles and Lyons terminals - and the development in Madrid - suggests that cut-price air travel is also beginning to transform the planning and architecture of major European airports.

The MP2 terminal at Marignane, near Marseilles, looks remarkably like a freight hangar. That is not surprising. Two years ago, it was a freight hangar.

Little has been done to give the exterior the stylish or futuristic look beloved of air terminals elsewhere. The total cost of the two-year conversion was £4.3m. The result is a kind of "cash-and-carry air terminal", with functional facilities and bright colours, mostly salmon pink and pea green. The deliberate departure from the usual subdued, airport lounge hues of beige and grey is said to symbolise "a bright new dawn in the way we travel".

Passengers will be encouraged, and expected, to spend as little time in the terminal as possible. There are only 30 seats in the whole building.

Cut-price airlines will pay much reduced airport taxes - 85 per cent less than the terminal next door which has the usual panoply of restaurants and seats (and carpets). Airlines will be charged 88p (€1.32) for each passenger, compared with £4.15 (€6.19) for each passenger at the conventional terminal.

Air France, now privatised but used to receiving preferential treatment, is livid. It has challenged the legality of the disparity in airport taxes in a complaint to the French government watchdog, the Conseil d'Etat.

Four airlines will use the new Marseilles terminal initially - easyJet, Virgin Express, Condor and, above all, Ryanair. The Irish airline will use MP2 as its first French hub - in other words, two Boeing 737-800 aircraft and their crews will be based there permanently, flying to 10 European destinations.

The three existing Ryanair services from Marseilles to Dublin, Glasgow and London Stansted will continue. There will be new flights from Marseilles to Oslo, Baden Baden, Rome, Frankfurt, Brussels, Porto and Madrid. Eventually, there will be Ryanair flights from Marseilles to three destinations in Morocco. Peter Sherratt of Ryanair said: "We welcome this development and would like to see it happen elsewhere in Europe. We have pointed the way with our use of regional airports, or airports like Paris-Beauvais or Frankfurt-Hahn, which offer a simpler service for passengers and a quicker turnaround for airlines.

"The point is that you do not need gold-plated marble halls to help you to get on and get off aircraft. Yes, Air France is complaining. But what would you expect? Instead of complaining, they should consider using the new terminal themselves.

"This place should not be seen as just for low-cost airlines. Any airline could, and should, consider using it to reduce costs."

Ryanair hopes to attract a million passengers a year to its Marseilles-based flights, at least half of them French. The other cut-price airlines using MP2 will offer flights to, among other cities, Liverpool, Bristol, Karlsruhe, Eindhoven and Brussels.

From this pattern something becomes clear: France is, finally, catching up with the cheap air travel revolution. The country has, until now, been a favourite "destination" for cut-price air travel, rather than a nation that has been offered cheap flights to its own holiday haunts.

In Britain, a third of short-to medium-haul air journeys are made with low-cost companies. In France, which is still dominated by Air France, it is more like one in four.

Ryanair offers flights from Britain to 19 provincial French destinations. In the south-west of France, in Brittany, in the Alps around Chamonix, in parts of the Massif central, there are now thousands of permanent British migrants. The children are in French schools. The bread-earner works through the internet or, more commonly, commutes from Britain using the low-price flights.

There has been some muttering among locals about the effect on property prices and the stand-offishness of some - by no means all - of the incoming Brits. A French book about the phenomenon published earlier this year, Help, The English Are Invading Us!, by José-Alain Fralon and Frédéric Potet, says that the British "invasion" is mostly seen as positive.

However, there is one frequent gripe from locals, the book says. The British have cheap flights to several destinations in France but the French only have cheap flights to Essex. But that has already started to change.

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