Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

High-flying Stelios sets his sights to cruise control
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The Independent Travel

Relax, says the sign in Louis's cab. God is in control. But the circumstances are not ideal for spiritual rest: right now we are stationary in the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane of Interstate 95, crawling north through unholy traffic from Miami Beach to Fort Lauderdale. And Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the Greek-Cypriot god of new travel ideas, has a plane to catch.

The aircraft is not one of his; the easyJet founder currently has no plans to expand his low-cost airline concept across the Atlantic. The US aviation market is already unsustainably overcrowded, he says. "American Airlines' and United's business model is bankrupt. It would be a lot healthier if one of them went into liquidation."

Like millions of other travellers, he is doing his bit to accelerate such a demise - voting with his wallet in favour of the new breed of airlines. Stelios is flying to New York on jetBlue. "The staff are motivated, they've got brand-new planes and they've got good prices."

This is the closest the US gets to easyJet: an airline without the excess baggage of the "legacy" carriers like American or United, selling seats - mostly online - aboard brand-new Airbuses between key cities. Even the style of the airlineName is the same. Both carriers succeed through efficiency, which includes giving short shrift to stragglers stuck in traffic.

Tuesday, when we shared a holy taxi to the airport, was a big day for Stelios. In March 1995 he registered a "paper" airline called easyJet. "Ten years ago I didn't have the aircraft or a business plan. I wasn't invited to conferences. It was a matter of battling away at Luton trying to make it happen." A decade on, the man credited with transforming European aviation has been invited to speak at the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention in Miami Beach.

On a sunny afternoon in south Florida's pastel resort, the optimum activity is lingering over a latte before taking a dip in the ocean. Yet hundreds of us chose instead to pack out a seminar room in the Convention Center. This spartan chamber is an odd place for a conference about an upmarket pursuit such as cruising. It feels more like one of the gloomier corners of Luton airport; perhaps it is appropriate for the launch of a stripped-down cruise operation.

Amid analysts' predictions of exponential growth in cruising thanks to ever-bigger ships, Stelios has just launched the world's newest and probably smallest line, easyCruise. This Liberian corporation owns one modest ship, currently being refitted in Singapore, and has the least ambitious itinerary of any cruise line this side of the Norfolk Broads.

Starting on 6 May, his vessel will depart from Nice for Cannes - 20 miles west. The captain can leave almost all his charts at home. For the rest of the week, easyCruiseOne will not stray further than Portofino, 120 miles away on the Italian Riviera. "You'll be able to see an exclusive part of the world from a different viewpoint," says the company. Anyone who has sat in the traffic jams that infest the Riviera in high summer - far worse than the congestion on I-95 - may be inclined to sleep their way along the coast.

The slogan for easyJet's first flight from Luton to Glasgow was: "Fly to Scotland for the price of a pair of jeans". For easyCruise, the entry-level price is identical - £29.50 per cabin per night. The break-even figure is around £50 per person per night, and Stelios thinks he can make it work without taking business from existing lines.

The traffic eases, and Stelios relaxes. "I'm still trying to change people's lives. It's better to be stopped by someone saying: 'Thank you' rather than 'You filthy capitalist'." The patron saint of passengers is smiling on us, and Louis pulls up at the terminal with minutes to spare. One more question: if Michael O'Leary of Ryanair were to set up a cruise line, what would it be like? "There might be some verbal abuse over the loudspeakers from the captain."

easyCruise is taking bookings on 0906 292 9000 (25p per minute) or www.easyCruise.com

LAND OF THE CHEAP FARES

I happened to be flying the same evening as Stelios, but my plane was scheduled to leave from Miami airport, 25 miles south along the overcrowded Interstate 95.

Delta Airlines no longer flies from Fort Lauderdale to Miami, so the remaining public transport is the excellent Tri-Rail train that connects the towns and cities - and the two main airports - of south-east Florida. Fares are negligible; a ticket from Fort Lauderdale to Miami costs just $3 (£1.60). Yet even at rush hour, there were barely a dozen of us on board.

At Miami airport station, the transfer bus was waiting - but I was the only passenger.

"VIP service", promised the driver, as he steered the LOV (low-occupancy vehicle) on the five-minute hop.

The eight-hour flight to Heathrow had a rather higher "load factor": 100 per cent, at least in economy. If British Airways can sell out transatlantic flights even on a Tuesday in mid-March, and at half-decent fares, then Rod Eddington - the retiring chief executive - is leaving the company in good shape.

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