News: Aloha - by way of South Korea

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The Independent Travel

One aspect of Tuesday's Air France crash in Toronto received little comment: that the aircraft was carrying a full load of passengers. It was typical of the extremely busy transatlantic flights from Europe this summer. As demand between the UK and North America has surged, fares have reached record levels.

The benchmark return fare from London Heathrow to New York JFK has risen to around £700, three times the low-season price. And fares for westbound travellers are so high that one airline is offering flights to Hawaii via Asia.

The number of airlines allowed to fly to the US from Britain's leading airport, Heathrow, is restricted by an agreement to two carriers from each country: American Airlines, United, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. At times of high demand the market is distorted with too many travellers chasing too few seats.

The usual cheap options of Air India and Kuwait Airways are almost fully booked for August, and seats on one-stop services such as Icelandair via Reykjavik are also scarce.

High fares prevail to many other destinations, with airlines reporting impressive "load factors" - the proportion of seats occupied by fare-paying passengers. At the end of July, BA scored an average of 94 per cent across all its services from Heathrow - compared with a usual load factor of 75 per cent.

Fares to eastern and southern destinations, sold through discount agents, now look very low in comparison with transatlantic prices. For example, China Eastern is selling seats to Asia via its Shanghai hub at very low fares. Through discount agents, it is offering flights to Bangkok, Phuket, and Singapore for around £450 return. The Russian airline, Aeroflot, is selling flights in August from Heathrow via Moscow to Tokyo for barely £500.

For around £680 you can fly to Honolulu the "wrong" way around, via Seoul on Korean Air. This even includes a night in a hotel in Korea on the inbound flight, because the schedules do not dovetail. A comparable price for the usual route via California is over £900.

To reach the other side of the world, Malaysia Airlines has a special from Manchester or Heathrow via Kuala Lumpur to Auckland for around £620 return for outbound flights between next Tuesday, 9 August, and the end of November. This works out at around 2.5p per mile, compared with roughly 10p per mile on transatlantic flights this summer.

IF THE SEAT next to you on a flight to Alicante this summer is empty, it could be as a result of fraudsters "testing" a stolen card to discover if it has been reported as lost. They have no intention of travelling; they merely want to confirm that they can start a spending spree.

When paper tickets were the norm, the opportunities for fraud were considerable; a ticket ostensibly bought for cash could be presented to the airline and a full cash refund obtained. Yet the move towards electronic tickets may have actually increased the amount of criminal activity in the travel business.

According to the electronic payment firm Retail Decisions, thieves will often go online to try to book a flight within minutes of acquiring a card. If the purchase goes through, that signals the card can be used for other, more lucrative transactions. Because the fraudsters tend to be in a hurry, they often book a trip to the first city on the drop-down menu of destinations - likely to be Alicante.

The Association of Payment Clearing Services, the bankers' trade association, estimates that airline fraud has trebled in the UK since 2001. Sometimes bookings are made for genuine travel rather than checking a card's status.

"Typically these are 'third-party' transactions in a different name, booked at the last minute and for one-way travel in first or business class," says the chief executive of Retail Decisions, Carl Clump.

"It's beyond dispute that fraud is growing," says Tim Jeans, managing director of Monarch Scheduled. "The clearing houses are rightly nervous about any 'cardholder not present' transaction." But he adds that "illegal immigration is by far the biggest problem"; carriers are fined £2,000 for each inadmissable person they fly to Britain.

SOMETHING TO DECLARE

Destination of the week: arty Flanders

Brussels in August is a joy, not least because of the beach that has been imported there (right)- and the cheap £59 fares on Eurostar (08705 186 186, www.eurostar.com). In addition, the Ensor to Bosch exhibition is at the Centre for Fine Arts (00 32 2507 8444; www. bozar.be). Admission is normally €9 (£6.50), but Tourism Flanders-Brussels has two free tickets for the first 40 Independent readers to e-mail: office @visitflanders.co.uk.

Warning of the week: BA cancellations

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) is axeing routes because of intense competition from low-cost airlines.

BA abandoned its key routes from Heathrow to Dublin and Belfast years ago, and later the flight between Manchester and Londonderry. That service resumed for the summer this month. But BA is to end its link between Glasgow and Galway. The Tuesday and Wednesday services have been selling particularly badly, and flew for the last time this week; all other services will end 22 August.

BA's affiliate, GB Airways, is cutting some winter services from Gatwick to the Iberian peninsula. The routes to Porto and Almeria will end on 29 October; Valencia flights will be scaled back to three a week from the same date. But the airline is introducing a five-times- a-week service between Gatwick and Innsbruck, from 17 December.

Bargain of the week: better business class

For a while now, Air New Zealand's business class has felt out of touch with the flat beds that are standard on BA and Singapore Airlines. But Air New Zealand is installing a new class - Business Premier - that transcends even its existing first class. Until the refit is finished in November, the present low fares will continue to be charged. For example, a fare from London via Los Angeles to Auckland costs £1,950 per person return if two people fly together and you book by 15 August. The secret is to fly on one of the refurbished aircraft. How can you tell? Call Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149, www.airnew zealand.co.uk), who can tell from the seating plan whether a "new" or "old" 747 is operating the service. Note that the aircraft is assigned to a particular service two to four weeks in advance, but may be substituted at very short notice.

Francesca Bingley

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