Vast new superplanes herald the era of the long-haul budget flight. Mark MacKenzie reports

When the first Airbus A380 landed at Heathrow airport in May, we were glimpsing the future of civil aviation, for its rival, Boeing, had already launched its own "super jumbo", the 747-8, in November. This new, giant breed of plane will not only allow airlines to accommodate more passengers but will let them do so at considerably less cost. It may lead, ultimately, to that elusive industry goal: the long-haul budget flight.

The concept encountered a spot of turbulence recently when Eads, Airbus's parent company, announced that a number of orders would be delayed. With buyers threatening to cancel deals, the French parliament witnessed heated exchanges, hardly surprising given that an aircraft that cost so much to develop - between £6bn and £10bn, depending on who you believe - needs to sell around 300 units just to break even.

But the likelihood remains that sooner or later long-haul budget flights will be landing at an airport not particularly near you. Currently leading the field are a number of small Asian carriers, such as Oasis Airlines, a Hong Kong-based outfit that, in October, plans to start offering flights between London Gatwick and the former British colony for just £70 return.

Access to China's inherently cheap workforce is helping drive costs down, says Clement Wong, an analyst at Euromonitor, an international business intelligence provider. "Asian airlines have quite weak unions so they are also able to cut costs on flight attendants," he explains. Oasis may initially "push the boundaries" on price,but Mr Wong believes that, over the long term, prospective long-haul low cost carriers (LHLCCs) may well be forced to operate the same complex (which is to say, infuriating) pricing mechanisms as their short-haul cousins. "To get the cheapest flight passengers will have to book months in advance and most of the seats will be sold for much more [than the advertised minimum]," he says. "In the case of Oasis that might be as much as £250.

"Another thing to bear in mind is that short-haul budget carriers rely on a very fast turnaround, but on long-haul flights that's not possible due to differing time zones," says Mr Wong.

The global budget market has more than doubled in the past six years and despite delivery issues affecting the A380, Mr Wong believes that the eventual arrival of the new aircraft will make some form of long-haul budget option inevitable.

"Most airlines are monitoring the situation closely and Emirates [so far the A380's biggest customer] is one carrier that plans to experiment with different seating configurations," he says. "They might, for example, have the usual first, business and economy, and then an additional low-fare seating area."

To make up the shortfalls in revenue created by selling seats at heavily discounted prices, LHLCCs may allow passengers to "customise" flights. Mr Wong calls this a "pay-per-frill" service. "Most short-haul services already charge for priority boarding or extra legroom, and long haul will likely adopt a similar model so you will be able to pre-order a meal or pay for entertainment."

Euromonitor believes the first Europe-based LHLCC could be with us in the next five years. Droves of air passengers criss-crossing the planet for peanuts may sound like an environmental nightmare but all may not be lost. "Until the 1980s air travel was very expensive and in the future it will become expensive again," says Tom Norton of the environmental foundation Climate Care. "The European Emissions Trading Scheme [a Europe-wide initiative designed to reduce carbon emissions] limits the amount of carbon businesses are allowed to emit each year.

"Airlines currently fall outside the scheme but are unlikely to do so for much longer. At the a moment we're in a window of cheap air travel and it isn't going to last. As the cost of carbon goes up, that cost will be passed on to the customer."