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English Channel hop air fares drop

The first shot was fired this week in what the two combatants hope will be a price war on sky-high European air fares. Already, the cheapest air ticket for a once-costly hop across the English Channel has been cut by about 50 percent. Travelers on British and Dutch airlines will be able to make the journey beginning July 1 for about $70 round trip, compared with the current low fare of about $120, and the normal economy fare of $230.

This lower fare is the outcome of months of negotiations between the British and Dutch governments on behalf of British Airways and KLM. The accord was signed Thursday by the two transportation ministers in The Hague.

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But it also amounted to the initial salvo in what the two governments, numerous airlines, and passengers hope will be an attack on traditionally high European air fares. It was quickly followed by a request from the fledgling London-based Virgin Atlantic Airways for authority to offer an even cheaper fare from London's Gatwick airport to Maastricht in Holland.

While the British Airways-KLM deal would only be on a stand-by basis, British Caledonia Airlines has also received approval for similarly cheap flights across the channel on a reserved-booking basis beginning July 1.

All these moves are part of a lengthy campaign which began years ago to liberalize air travel in Europe. But the campaign could also touch off an international governmental row between the British and Dutch authorities and their neighbors all around Europe insisting on retaining the high-fare nationalized airline structure which has prevailed for decades.

Most European national airlines and governments have steadfastly held to rigid price and licensing policies, for fear that competition would drive them out of business.

They say the high fares are necessary because of high airport landing fees, high fuel consumption costs because of shorter flights, heavy unionization, and the need to maintain unprofitable routes for prestige or diplomatic reasons.

But British experiments with lower domestic fares have resulted in more passengers with no loss in profitability.

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