Look at the state they're in: national airlines showing the strain

Like Pope John Paul II's funeral and the royal wedding, the two most notable aviation events this week conveniently took place a day apart. You probably saw pictures of the first, on Wednesday: the world's largest passenger jet, the Airbus A380 unsticking (pilots' jargon for take-off) at Toulouse. It made contact with the same runway in the intended fashion four hours later. But I reckon the bigger story happened on Thursday. Not the opening of Robin Hood-Doncaster-and-all-stations-to-Sheffield International Airport in South Yorkshire, but in northern Italy: a small-ish Boeing 737 getting stuck in with Alitalia.

The Italian state airline has not ordered any of the new "Super Jumbo" planes, perhaps because it is having trouble filling its existing seats. As has been traditional for 11 of the past 12 years, Alitalia ended 2004 with another heavy loss, and currently owes €1.8bn (£1.3bn).

God knows how Alitalia keeps aloft, say some; it is certainly the closest airline to heaven, since it has a permanent contract to fly the Pope around. The airline has survived this long on subsidies from the Italian government. Under European competition law bail-outs are supposed to happen once only, to launder the balance sheet of ailing carriers and allow them to make a fresh start.

But Alitalia keeps demanding one last cash injection, and the Italian government keeps obliging. The authorities have also been trying to stifle competition: at one stage Italy's Civil Aviation Authority ordered Ryanair to cancel its planned flights between Rome and Alghero on the Italian island of Sardinia, but backed down after Ryanair threatened to take it to court.

Now Italians can get used to the Ryanair way of doing things - such as a certain geographical flexibility. Verona-Brescia airport is, for those who dislike complexity in travel, a pleasingly straightforward place - once you find it. In true Ryanair fashion, it's nowhere near Verona: the city of the Montagues and Capulets is about an hour away, and has its own airport.

Let us hope that every passenger is multilingual, since the notices warning of a 40-minute check-in deadline and disclaiming responsibility for missed connections is in English. But no one seemed to mind aboard FR9514: the flight was almost full, and my neighbour told me he had paid one-sixth of the fare he used to pay on Alitalia.

The Italian national airline no doubt had a spy aboard the flight. His or her report will worry Alitalia. At least half the passengers appeared to be business travellers, which cuts into the high-fare market the Italian airline has previously enjoyed. Alitalia's response to the new flight is to announce its own new link between Rome and Bergamo, which is just 40 miles from Brescia, almost identical to Ryanair's.

What does it mean for you? Well, if you haven't planned your summer holiday yet, you could now organise a two- or three-centre trip around Italy very cheaply. For example, you could reach Venice on one of several different airlines from the UK; fly from Treviso ("Venice" on planet Ryanair); hop down to Rome; nip across to Sardinia for some beach life; and return to Britain for a total travel spend of £100, if you time your purchase right and are flexible about when you travel.

For Europe as a whole the significance is much greater: the notion of "national carriers" with monopolies on domestic air travel has evaporated. The four largest countries - Britain, Germany, France and now Italy - have no-frills competition internal flights from "foreign" airlines. Travellers have shown that they could not care less - so long as the fares are low.

Turn off the life-support machine, says Stelios. Some of Europe's failing state airlines, currently being propped up by the taxpaper, should be allowed to die: that is the view of Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of easyJet, who has singled out Olympic Airlines of Greece as the carrier that should bow out.

The carrier has made a loss for each of the past 30 years. Despite strict EU rules on state aid, Olympic has been kept going through cash injections from the Greek government. Several companies are considering buying up the beleaguered airline, but Stelios says: "If Olympic stopped flying tomorrow, there would be plenty of other airlines that would fill the gap."

SINK OR SWIM

All these new flights need crew, and Ryanair has been advertising for them in the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Neil Taylor of Regent Holidays tells me from Tallinn about "an advertisement in the local press for pilots with salaries of around £30,000 a year - very good by local standards, but one-third of the going rate in western Europe".

He adds: "There is a parallel advertisement for stewardesses, offering the same salaries but with quite a range of necessary qualifications."

Mostly these are obvious - having an EU passport, speaking good English, and so on - but Mr Taylor is alarmed to see that it also mentions "good swimming skills".

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