Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Go: from start to finish
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The Independent Travel

In public, the aviation business is united in protesting about the calamities imposed on it by everyone from politicians to environmentalists. The latest blow is the disinclination of the (former) travelling public to go much further than the end of the road.

In public, the aviation business is united in protesting about the calamities imposed on it by everyone from politicians to environmentalists. The latest blow is the disinclination of the (former) travelling public to go much further than the end of the road.

The good thing about air travel from most users' perspectives is that it is a discretionary activity: you don't need to do it. Anyone for whom the prospect of a terrorist attack or killer bugs is too daunting can opt to stay put and communicate by phone or e-mail, or travel by car, train or ferry instead. All the economic assumptions that were made when dozens of aircraft were ordered and generous wage agreements were signed have been upset, which explains the mournful chorus of senior airline executives.

In private, the individual airline chief executive behaves very differently. He is prone to opine long and loud about which of his rivals should, by rights, be out of a job by this time next week. In an industry that suffers from chronic overcapacity, the argument typically runs that it would do everyone a favour if Air X, or Y Airlines, would take a one-way flight to oblivion. If the fleet were flown to the desert and abandoned, it might give everyone else half a chance to make a decent living.

Between now and Monday, I confidently predict that two UK no-frills airlines will disappear. But the executives of traditional carriers will not necessarily be rolling out the business-class champagne: Go and Buzz will not be dismantled, so much as digested – giving the lean, keen airlines that are devouring them some extra muscle in a market full of weaklings.

* When, a moment ago, I referred to airline bosses as masculine, that was no sexist slip. Regrettably, all of them now are. A year ago, the one exception was summoned to a meeting where she learnt that her job was soon to disappear, as easyJet was about to buy out its rival.

In just four years, Barbara Cassani had created the most outstanding new business in Britain. Go began life as "the low-cost airline from British Airways", but soon learnt to stand on its own 12 wheels and started winning awards. Passengers adored its classy image and sophisticated service. If you want to experience the style one final time, join me on Go flight 226 from Nice to Stansted tonight.

The erasure of Go is a magnificent example of quitting while you are ahead – ensuring that everyone will share only positive memories of the airline. Once the Boeing taxis to the gate shortly after 11pm, the carrier that Barbara built will officially cease to exist. Pre-assigned seats and jokey slogans on the aircraft will disappear along with Britain's greatest aviation success story of recent years. For Go's loyal passengers and staff, the future is orange. But for most Buzz staff, the future is bleak.

"BUZZ: THE low-cost airline that gives you more." In a sense, the slogan that still appears on a poster at Stansted airport is spot-on. During its brief life, Buzz has provided passengers with flights at well below cost price. It has been the no-frills airline for the chattering classes, providing a handy shuttle to second-home territory in the more civilised parts of France and Spain. Since Ryanair announced it was taking over its no-frills rival, the scale of the losses at Buzz has been revealed. Recent passengers have enjoyed a subsidy of £10 for each flight. That could help to explain why subscribers to Holiday Which? recently voted Buzz as best in the no-frills pack.

The generous benefactor has been KLM. Until midnight on Monday, it owns Buzz, the low-cost airline that gives you headaches, if you happen to be a KLM shareholder. With the no-frills offshoot losing £100,000 a day, the Dutch airline can hardly wait to be rid of its expensive experiment.

From Tuesday, Ryanair starts picking up the bills. The Irish airline is so appalled by Buzz's financial performance that it has shut down its acquisition for the entire month of April. Given the hefty fixed costs involved in any airline, and the relatively marginal cost of flying the aircraft, the figures must have been truly horrendous to take such a drastic step.

By Thursday evening, some Buzz staff were understandably upset that the no-frills airline that they have worked to build up over the past three years is about to be extinguished. Passengers bound for Germany were told that their flight was cancelled due to "staff shortage". Yet the new owner believes the airline has the opposite problem: most Buzz employees are to be discarded as excess baggage.

* Halving the number of no-frills airlines serving Britain's leading aviation market, London and the south-east of England, sounds like bad news for the traveller looking for good value – exacerbated by grounding an entire fleet of aircraft for a month, and the ditching of Buzz's plans for a base in Bournemouth. But April now looks like the best of all possible times to travel. Besides the comedy transatlantic fares mentioned in Bargain of the Week, below, there are plenty of short-haul deals around from Britain's other low-cost airlines. For a change, Londoners may find themselves heading for provincial airports to snap up a bargain.

"I'd advise anyone in the South East to check out flights from the Midlands," says Tim Jeans. "By heading out for an hour or two you could save 50 per cent on fares from London." Mr Jeans is not an entirely disinterested party, since he is the boss of MyTravelLite, which happens to be based in Birmingham. But he has a point: because booking patterns for flights from outside London are different from those in the capital, peak times from Gatwick or Luton may be off-peak from East Midlands or Birmingham. MyTravelLite is flogging flights to Amsterdam for £41 return, while Jet2 does even better from Leeds/Bradford to the Dutch capital for £33 return. These are not those frustrating "now you see them, now you don't" fares you can never find – yesterday there was plenty of availability except over Easter.

Tomorrow, FlyBE opens its hub at Southampton, with flights to Belfast, Dublin, Geneva, Jersey and Milan. You can get from Hampshire to Italy for a typical fare of £73 return in April. At the same time, Bmibaby is expanding its Cardiff operation with new links to Munich, Palma and Toulouse. The airline replaces British Airways on the run to Paris, with fares of £47 return widely available for April.

* While the painters were removing the last evidence of Go's brief existence from Stansted airport, the business people of Sussex were meeting at a hotel near Gatwick to debate whether Britain's second airport should have one, two or three runways.

At present, Gatwick is the busiest single-runway airport in the world. The government's consultation document on airport expansion in Britain offers several options for growth, including adding another two runways – a move that would quadruple passenger numbers at Gatwick, and dwarf Heathrow as the UK's busiest airport.

One of the speakers was Lieutenant-Colonel Tex Pemberton, who sounds like a US military commander but is in fact a West Sussex county councillor. As a former Army officer, his view about the ideal number of runways at Gatwick coincides with the military's view about the appropriate quantity of people on a committee: an odd number, with three being rather too many.

The event, sponsored by Sussex Enterprise, had been planned for months, so it was hardly the organisers' fault that, for many of Gatwick's current clients, a single runway is more than enough at present. The vote was more optimistic; after a Florida-style fracas over the original tally, a recount found a majority of 28 to 17 in favour of expansion. The hotel staff looked worried: two of the options under discussion would see the meeting's venue, the Gatwick Manor Hotel, flattened to make room for a new runway.