Simon Calder: Destination unknown: the problem with no-frills flying

'The only losers are the airlines that have been taking us all for a ride for far too long, right? No'
Click to follow

To be a man of the people, you should fly with the people – that must have been the advice from within No 10. For the Prime Minister to cast off the notion of travel élitism, born of one too many trips in RAF jets or fast-tracks down the M4 bus lane, it would be a simple matter of following the example of around 10 million voters this year, and booking a no-frills flight.

The Blair family break in Europe could have been better researched by Downing Street; easyJet was given to understand that the Blairs would be travelling on a garish orange plane from Luton belonging to Stelios Haji Ioannou. Instead, the Irish airline, Ryanair, will add to its bulging pockets by transporting the family from Stansted to Carcassonne. Europe's biggest no-frills airline will gain another dollop of publicity at the expense of its rivals.

British Airways bosses are furious that the Prime Minister has, literally, gone out of his way to fly someone else's flag – the BA hop from Gatwick to Toulouse would have been a more convenient route to the family's holiday château. But the Blairs are at least more in tune with the travelling public's opinions than much of the establishment.

Governments, the EU and even the traditional airlines fail to comprehend how much the shape of aviation in Europe has changed since the blustery November day in 1995 when an easyJet Boeing 737 took off from Luton, destination Glasgow, for a flat fare of £29. In the absence of a cohesive transport policy, the no-frills airlines are filling the strategy vacuum – and the skies – with a fleet of 737s, mainly owned by Ryanair and easyJet.

Stelios, as easyJet's boss is known by staff, passengers and adversaries, believes that "full-service" flying within Europe will be as endangered a species as the airship within a decade. In a bid to accelerate that demise, the Greek Cypriot millionaire treats each easyJet flight as a marketing opportunity. He talks to each passenger, researching their travel needs and building up a mental picture of the opportunities for placing the jets that are flying off the Boeing production line in Seattle, at the expense of traditional airlines.

Another weapon about to be unleashed by the easyJet chairman is much more sophisticated than the "we'll-get-you-there-more-cheaply" message that is the basic pitch of all no-frills airlines. Chapter one of the marketing handbook of traditional aviation in Europe amounts to "work out who the business travellers are, then write the rules to exclude them from the cheapest fares". Within weeks, travellers will be able to key their travel plans into an easyValue website. These will multiply and go forth unto the reservations systems of airlines and agents. The traveller will be urged, where appropriate, to buy two cheap return tickets and throw away the unused halves – a move that undermines the yield-management techniques by which every airline seeks to maximise the earnings from every seat.

Next week I shall fly off on holiday, travelling down the Rhine. The outbound flight, from Heathrow to Basel, is theoretically free – I "bought" it with BA frequent-flyer miles. But the "taxes, fees and charges" that the airline applies amount to more than the total cost of the homebound journey on Ryanair from Frankfurt to Stansted.

British travellers enjoy far more options for low-cost flying than any Continental country. BA, as the UK's biggest airline, has taken plenty of knocks from the new boys. But BA is already well into a programme of controlled contraction, and is pumping hundreds of millions into enhancing its product to distance itself from the low-cost operators. Other European airlines have been more seriously wounded. Even Eurostar has said that Ryanair's new service between Stansted in Essex and Charleroi in Belgium is damaging sales between Waterloo and Brussels. The airline that flies to places to which you didn't know you wanted to go has fares low enough to persuade 9 million people to use it this year, but high enough to earn it £6 profit per passenger.

The only losers are the airlines that have been taking us all for a ride for far too long, right? No. Ask the loyal customers of KLM uk, which built up an excellent Anglo-Scottish network in the days when no-one else wanted to fly from Stansted. Competition from Go, easyJet and Ryanair crippled the airline. All flights to Scotland were scrapped, and KLM uk's new no-frills identity, Buzz, is just a shadow of the former route network.

The biggest concern, though, is the air – its quality, the noise transmitted through it, and the increasing crowds of aircraft trying to fly through it. Britain taxes most things, but not aviation fuel, which is one reason the airlines can afford to slug it out in the skies between Edinburgh and Dublin. The residents of those cities, plus the people who live around Stansted and Luton, are unlikely to welcome yet more flights.

There is plenty for Mr Blair to digest while he is not enjoying Ryanair's non-existent free lunch.