In the six years before the events of 11 September 2001 and the ensuing turmoil in the travel industry, regular price wars were fought between the major airlines operating between the UK and Australasia. The public cashed in as Qantas and British Airways went head to head with Singapore Airlines, with Malaysia Airlines sniping at their heels. Meanwhile, smaller players such as Emirates, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines brought out price initiatives to carve out a slice of the market, as did Air New Zealand.
As a result of the uncertainty caused by September 11, Afghanistan, the Gulf War and Sars, long-haul airlines cut routes and frequencies, and operated smaller aircraft with fewer seats. But the Rugby World Cup and the Lord of the Rings film trilogy have stimulated demand to Australia and New Zealand, and airlines are re-introducing services, starting up new routes and increasing capacity. Once again there is a market worth fighting over - and the price wars are back.
"Seat sales" are nothing new. But in these uncertain days, airlines prefer to have the passengers' money in the bank. A frequent requirement to secure a low fare for flights up to a year ahead is to pay in full within a few days of booking. As long as you book quickly, you can secure a return fare to Australia or New Zealand on a leading airline for well under £600. Choose a smaller airline with less frequent services or more stops (such as Royal Brunei or Gulf Air) and there might even be change out of £500; not a bad deal, bearing in mind that about £70 of the fare is made up of taxes, fees and charges.
There are plenty of super-cheap fares for departures during the traditional low season (mid-April until mid-June), but some excellent deals are on short-term sale for November and even early December. Expect a few more "book and pay in full now" sales in the coming months as the carriers continue to juggle supply, demand, revenue and market share.
Current Best Buys
Gulf Air to Sydney from Heathrow via Bahrain: £489 for departures until 31 May. Airline Network (0870 241 0032; www.airlinenetwork.co.uk).
Cathay Pacific from Heathrow or Manchester via Hong Kong to Auckland for £549; Sydney or Melbourne for £599. Depart before 21 March, or from 1 November to 5 December. Book by 22 February through Quest Travel (0870 444 5552; www.questtravel.com).
Royal Brunei from Heathrow to Perth via Bandar Seri Begawan £499, now to 10 June (not 8-13 April). Travelmood (08700 660004; www.travelmood.com).No-frills rivals go east
Eastern Europe is the latest battleground for no-frills airlines. Just hours after the European Union expands on 1 May, easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) starts services from Stansted to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, and from Luton to Budapest in Hungary. Fares to both destinations start at £31 return.
Prague is getting three more links from Britain this summer, making the Czech capital even better connected - and increasing the likelihood of a bitter fares war. On 24 April, easyJet is launching services from Gatwick to Prague - followed six days later by Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com) on the same route, its first flight from the Sussex airport. On 29 April, Jet2 (0870 737 82 82; www.jet2.com) begins flying between Belfast and Prague.
The low-cost aviation battle is intensifying in Germany. Yesterday, easyJet announced a new base in Dortmund, currently the preserve of Air Berlin (0870 738 8880; www.airberlin.com).
Not every no-frills route proves profitable, and on 28 March easyJet is abandoning its flights between Gatwick and Zurich. Operations are switching to Basel, opening up northern Switzerland, the Black Forest and eastern France to no-frills aviation.