The Man Who Pays His Way

Has Ryanair run out of puff?

They seek him here, they seek him there; in Estonia and Finistère. Eagerly pursuing all the latest travel trends, he's a dedicated follower of the no-frills mantra: Benevolence Begets Business. He is Bernard Berger, the director of new route development for Ryanair. And he does not so much pursue as set travel trends.

Mr Berger's job means that he knows Europe like the back of a Ryanair sick bag. His role over the next seven years is to find destinations for the 100-plus new Boeings that the Irish airline has on order, and to fill them with a number equivalent to the entire population of Britain: around 58 million people.

How does he do that, then? By poring over the air navigation charts at his office in Dublin, then trudging around Europe, checking out the places where Ryanair passengers may find themselves checking in.

A good place to start is by looking at the existing market for air travel. For example, travellers between western Poland and south-east England have to go via a third airport. By looking at the number of passengers currently flying from Poznan via Warsaw or Frankfurt to London, you can deduce if there is enough to fill a daily Boeing 737 from Stansted (there isn't, by the way). But existing demand is only one aspect of the no-frills equation.

The first question about a new airport for Mr Berger to address is: how simple and uncongested is it? A runway, a shed and a control tower is the optimum: "We need maximum efficiency at the airports we fly to", says the runway hunter. "We do not want to fly to airports where we have to taxi for 40 minutes just to take off."

Poznan fits the bill perfectly: there is more tumbleweed than traffic on the country lane that leads to the city's modest airport. And when you stop looking at airline schedules and start checking out the bus stations, it begins to look even better. Every moment of every day there are about a dozen coaches shuttling between the UK and Poland. It's one of the dreariest journeys in Christendom but, at half the fares charged by British Airways and LOT Polish Airlines, there are plenty of takers. Most of these weary passengers would switch at an instant to a cheap flight, if one were available. Then there is the car park at Schönefeld airport in east Berlin. When the flight from Stansted arrives in the German capital, it is instructive to count the passengers who head for the parking lot and climb into vehicles bearing Polish number plates.

I must stress that Poznan is just a convenient example, one of dozens of locations where Ryanair is reported to have shown an interest; gossip reaching the travel desk suggests that Mr Berger has been omnipresent recently, with airports along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, in western Bohemia and western Scotland all rumoured to be next in line for a link to London.

While negotiations continue with airports across Europe, Ryanair's routes guru is not going to reveal the airline's latest targets. But the chances are that they are offering substantial sweeteners to persuade the Irish airline to land. What is in it for them? "Small regional airports are not going to grow with conventional airlines", says Mr Berger. "We can put their airport on the map, make their region an easier place to do business, and bring in tourists."

Poznan is not quite on a par with Prague as a city-break destination; the only British tourists I met there were rail enthusiasts intent on sampling Europe's last main-line steam train. But, says Mr Berger, "People will often pick destinations they would not otherwise have thought of simply because there is a flight there."

They will also buy second homes based on the ready availability of cheap flights. Indeed, thousands of people have bought properties predicated upon no-frills links - as an advertisement in this week's Spectator, of all places, for a villa in south-west France shows. "Ryanair 40 minutes", it promises.

"When we started flying Stansted to Carcassonne, there were huge guffaws all around the industry and around France about our flying to this insignificant airport", says Mr Berger. "We were told: 'You will never fill your planes. Oh, you are not really going to be flying in the winter, are you?' We have done all those things. We fly there twice a day in the summer and once a day in the winter - every day except Christmas - and we fly there from Brussels." Well, Charleroi, at least.

But perhaps Mr Berger will find himself working even harder over the next few months. This week, a French court rejected an appeal from Ryanair and confirmed that its service to Strasbourg must end on Tuesday. A £5-per-passenger subsidy from the local chamber of commerce made it unfair competition for Air France, the judge ruled.

The continent's political capital finds itself with no air link to the aviation capital of Europe - though French newspapers yesterday speculated that Air France flights from Gatwick to Strasbourg will be reintroduced by 20 October, in time for the next-but-one session of the European parliament. If pre-Ryanair fares are imposed, MEPs may be the only passengers.

Ryanair is nothing if not nimble, and has simply switched its flights across the German border - which is why today page four of this section tells you how to spend 48 hours in Baden-Baden rather than Strasbourg. Following the court's verdict, some have predicted the end of cheap flying as we know it. Surely Air France, the vindicated injured party in the court case, will chase around Ryanair's other French destinations, checking out the deals that have been struck with local authorities? Those who are tucked up in their pieds à terre in Gascony or Brittany can rest easy. Lawyers for the French national airline are no doubt studying the small print of Ryanair's deals with the airports at Biarritz and Brest, but the chances of a successful court case at other destinations is slim. Even in a nation where the judiciary has, in the past, appeared sympathetic to Air France, it could be tricky to prove unfair competition on routes the national carrier has shown no interest in flying.

For the past year, one disincentive to flying from Ryanair's main base, Stansted, has been the absence of a rail link on the sabbath. Long-term engineering work has closed the Stansted Express line from London Liverpool Street every Sunday. The full-service airline BMI has even published knocking ads that boast about the superiority of its home, Heathrow. The copy reads: "I want to come back on Sunday. I don't want to spend my Sunday coming back."

BMI points out that "the Stansted Express doesn't run on Sunday, so if you're flying Ryanair or easyJet you're forced to take a slower alternative." (Last time I came back to Heathrow on a Sunday with BMI, the flight was four hours late.) The bus replacement service was due to continue until May 2004. But I can reveal exclusively that the rail link will re-open, seven days a week, from 2 November this year.

Never mind low fares. What is the highest fare that you can possibly pay for any (scheduled) return air journey from Britain? That is the question I put to the fares guru, Arran Sutherland of Quest Travel. With a Concorde return from London to New York costing £8,292 alone, you might estimate a price of £20,000 or £30,000 once flights at each end are bolted on - especially if you choose New Zealand as your destination, which is the furthest nation from the UK.

Yet the answer is a trifling £13,387. This will take you from Tiree in western Scotland to Invercargill on the South Island of New Zealand in the highest available class: economy to Glasgow on British Airways, onward to Heathrow in business class, across the Atlantic aboard Concorde, American Airlines in first class to Los Angeles, onward at the front of an Air New Zealand jet across the Pacific to Auckland, and on to the southernmost airport in New Zealand in economy. And back the same way.

In November, when Concorde follows Go and Buzz into aeronautical oblivion, Britain's priciest plane ride will fall by over £2,000. The new fare will be £11,253, with the difference being the transatlantic segment in first class on BA, rather than Concorde. But you will need to spend some of that on a fancy hotel in New York, as subsonic flights cannot get there early enough to meet the onward connections.

When you reach New Zealand, take advantage of Sir Richard Branson's latest aviation venture, Pacific Blue. The new airline starts flying in February from Christchurch, on South Island, to Brisbane in Queensland, with one-way fares as low as NZ$99 (£37). But don't book on www.pacificblue.com, a website devoted to a Californian TV soap; try www.pacificblue.co.nz instead.

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