Simon Calder: Disney airport? You're taking the Mickey

The man who pays his way

Simon Calder
Saturday 07 April 2012 00:09 BST
A corker: Ryanair's new base is well placed for exploring Champagne
A corker: Ryanair's new base is well placed for exploring Champagne (AFP/Getty Images)

Europe's no-frills aviation radar has a new arrival: Paris-Vatry-Disney airport. It even has a racy three-letter code, XCR. While this French airport is not yet on the map for British passengers, it has just launched scheduled links from Marseille, Skavsta in Sweden and Porto in Portugal.

As appealing airport names go, Paris-Vatry-Disney is world class. Who wouldn't want to touch down at an airport that promises "Proximity and accessibility second to none"?

To judge by the claim, and the name, you might imagine that Paris-Vatry-Disney is midway between the French capital and Europe's favourite theme park, which celebrates its 20th birthday on Thursday. The airport's new tenant even suggests that arriving passengers can "Make a visit at Disneyland shows [sic] and experience the magic of Disney. Have a Parisian tour without stress and no traffic jams."

Yet you will peer at the map of the blur of banlieues east of Paris in vain for anywhere called Vatry. RER Line A is the direct link from central Paris and the station for Disneyland, Marne-la-Vallée. Frequent suburban trains serve Bry-sur-Marne, Lognes and Torcy en route to the Magic Kingdom. But there is a vacancy for Vatry.

Perhaps the identity of the airline that has just launched flights to and from Paris-Vatry-Disney will alert you to a strange distortion of European geography. It's Ryanair.

The Irish airline has always shunned Charles-de-Gaulle, the leading aviation hub in Continental Europe (a long way behind Heathrow, but still ahead of Frankfurt, Madrid and Amsterdam). Ryanair also rejected Orly, only eight miles from the Eiffel Tower, and which handles an exotic mix of domestic, charter, full-service and no-frills traffic.

The airline looked beyond this pair of airports for its original version of the French capital, which is known as "Paris-Beauvais" and turns out to be the former Luftwaffe airstrip that was used to attack Britain from 1940-1944. It is 50 miles north of the Boulevard Périphérique.

The new Parisian pretender is a relic from the Cold War rather than the Second World War. It is an old Nato base, which explains its Heathrow-sized runway, capable of handling any plane in the world. The airport is located where the historic N4 between the French capital and Alsace meets the A26 autoroute from Reims to Troyes.

While the airport is handy for the effervescent towns of Epernay and Châlons-en-Champagne, the map reveals that Paris is slightly further from the terminal than is Belgium. The airport's own publicity concedes that the centre of Paris is 93 miles away.

Passengers using Vatry as a gateway to the French capital can avail of a bus connection – but it is surely Europe's longest "airport shuttle". Buses leave a stop adjacent to the Eiffel Tower six hours before the plane is due to leave. The trip to Vatry in itself (slogan: "So close, so fast") is scheduled to last four hours. In those six hours you could take a train from Paris to London, have lunch, and return again.

Ryanair's chief executive is unrepentant. Michael O'Leary tells me: "We are now offering flights to Beauvais in the north and Vatry in the east, offering convenient and readily accessible transfers to Disneyland Paris and Paris itself."

Champagne, then south to the sun

For the British traveller, Paris-Vatry-Disney may not appeal, because of its awkward location and sparse flights. Gatwick sees as many departures in an hour as the new arrival has in a month. Yet the airport offers an intriguing two-centre option for British motorists who can take advantage of cheap cross-Channel fares this summer to turn Vatry into yet another "London" airport.

Paris-Vatry-Disney is the easiest Continental airport for any British motorist to find. No satnav necessary: just join the A26 motorway at Calais and keep going – past Arras, Cambrai and Reims – for about three hours, and it will pop up on the right.

Spend a while exploring the delights of the Champagne region. Then park outside the airport terminal for free for as long as you wish, and take a side trip to Marseille and the Med for €68 return – the going rate for August, and less than the tolls for driving south on the péage.

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