After 10 years, this revolution shows no sign of slowing

For most of the 20th century, a chronically wasteful airline industry did the world a favour, by keeping the lid on demand for aviation. With the typical scheduled airline running a huge payroll to sustain its bureaucratic, ill-managed operations, costs were so high that most prospective travellers were priced out of the market. Airlines and governments - often one and the same entity - connived to stifle competition and keep fares high. The result: only the rich could afford to fly. With the vast majority of travellers opting for road or rail, aviation was a mere puff in the fog of hydrocarbon pollution.

A decade ago, a brilliant young Greek Cypriot began to change the face of flying in Britain and Europe. Stelios had the benefit of £5m borrowed from his father, and Europe's newly liberalised aviation market. But it took courage and vision to lease a couple of Boeings, paint them orange and launch a carrier named easyJet. The airline now has more than 100 aircraft, and has flown more than 100m passengers. And that is just the start: in the next decade, easyJet is expected to treble in size.

At the same time Michael O'Leary, chief executive of a failing Irish airline called Ryanair, realised that by cutting costs - and fares - to levels where ordinary people could be persuaded to fly, he could unlock a vast new market. His airline is now the most profitable in Europe, though he is unlikely to be a guest at Stelios's party.

For the traveller, the low-cost revolution has unlocked Europe - and done far more to melt Britain's traditional isolationism from the Continent than any politician. Low cost, at least to the user; but the boom has been fuelled, quite literally, by tax-free kerosene.

Aircraft are becoming quieter and more efficient, but that is of little comfort to the communities around many of Britain's suddenly hyperactive airports. Bristol was last month cited by a correspondent to The Independent as "the PC capital of Britain". Yet studying the schedules at the city's airport reveals an insatiable appetite for flying, which Britain's low-cost aviation industry is doing its best to satisfy. This month, the citizens of Bristol get new services to Inverness, Murcia and Pisa.

This pattern is repeated at previously moribund airports all over the UK, from Newquay to Prestwick. In the past 15 months two new airports have opened, aimed squarely at the no-frills market. Coventry and Robin Hood Doncaster-Sheffield (the old RAF Finningley) can succeed only if people in the catchment area start flying even more than they do now.

The last British politician to try to dampen demand for air travel, or at least raise the price of climbing on board, was Kenneth Clarke. As Tory chancellor, he introduced Air Passenger Duty - adding a fiver to domestic and European fares. It has hardly proved a disincentive to the extraordinary growth in flying.

There is an argument that point-to-point flights which would never have been predicated on the old high-cost model - such as Bristol to Pisa or Prestwick to Frankfurt Hahn - are actually much better for the environment than the alternatives. Passengers would either have taken two flights, via a hub airport such as Amsterdam, or driven to a major airport such as Heathrow or Manchester to collect their flight.

And long haul, the new Airbus A380 will cause far less damage per passenger-mile than thirsty, noisy beasts such as the DC10. But anyone who fondly imagines that two old jets will be grounded for each of the new Superjumbos is reckoning without the great British desire to travel far, wide and cheaply - to visit the Earth, not just the Earth Galleries.


Among the beneficiaries of the boom in low-cost travel is publishing; in Stanfords in London this week, I counted 38 guidebooks to Barcelona, ranging from "cool restaurants" to the "film noir" side of the city.

Finding a successful niche is a constant struggle for publishers. A year ago, Rough Guides produced a guide to Maori New Zealand. It was handed out free to publicise the Rough Guide to New Zealand. It quickly became an object of desire there, with questions asked in the parliament in Wellington.

As prices on the grey market soared, managing director Kevin Fitzgerald ordered a special edition of the book. He was invited to take the first copy out to Auckland himself, and Air New Zealand was appointed "official carrier" of the guide.

Miraculously, the flight across the International Date Line last weekend was timed so that 25 June did not exist for Mr Fitzgerald or the book - erasing the date of the Lions' dismal performance on the rugby field. His was the only smiling British face in New Zealand.