News: BA comes into line with low-cost airlines

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Quietly and without any public statement, British Airways has been abandoning one of its long-standing practices designed to restrict the availability of low fares. BA is now selling its very cheapest seats as one-way flights.

A decade ago, every airline could limit access to cheap European fares by making budget travellers jump through two hoops: insisting on a return trip, and stipulating a minimum stay of one Saturday night. By these means, business travellers were obliged to pay the highest fares.

Inconveniently for the airlines, a decade ago easyJet declared itself indifferent to how long its customers chose to stay away; they could return the same day, or from a different airport, or not at all, because the airline has only ever sold one-way flights.

Four years ago, the rise of no-frills flying undermined BA's "Saturday-night minimum" rule, which was ditched for most European flights. Now, the arcane fare structure whereby a one-way flight could cost much more than a return is coming to an end, too.

"Return trips are still the most popular option," says a spokeswoman for BA, "but we recognise the need of some short-haul passengers to have the flexibility of one-way fares."

That flexibility does not yet extend right across the European network; for a New Year trip to Moscow, the lowest return fare is £208, but a one-way flight is £200 more.

On most routes, though, BA has come into line with the low-cost airlines. As a result, Europe has opened up for people who prefer BA's service and route network.

For example, an itinerary for next week including a one-way from Heathrow to Prague, and a return from Berlin, comes in at a reasonable £140 - previously, the price of two one-way fares would have topped £500.

Until next Tuesday, 29 November, BA has a seat sale to Spain and Portugal with one-way fares designed to compete directly with those of easyJet, Monarch and Thomsonfly on key routes; in January, you can fly to Malaga from Gatwick for £34 or from Heathrow for £47.

Most other airlines are expected to fall into line with British Airways on routes to and from the UK.

BMI - British Airways' main European competitor - adopted the policy on many of its routes last year. On some "code-share" flights, however, outlandish prices still prevail. In response to a test booking made four weeks ahead for an economy seat on an off-peak departure from Heathrow to Munich (operated by Lufthansa), the airline's reservation system reported that "the class selected is no longer available" and demanded £409 for a one-way trip in business class.