Low-cost airlines take flight In Europe, growth of carriers caused by deregulation

September 28, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

LUTON, Britain -- If you have ever flown on Southwest Airlines, you would feel right at home on easyJet Airlines, one of a growing crop of carriers that are bringing lower airfares to Europe.

Airlines such as easyJet, a new British Airways subsidiary named Go, Virgin Express, Ryanair and Debonair are an outgrowth of deregulation in Europe, an effort that started less than a decade ago. Airfares and routes across Europe were fully deregulated -- or liberalized, as Europeans say -- less than a year and a half ago.

The European start-up airlines target leisure travelers. But like their U.S. counterparts, their low prices and uncomplicated rules also draw business travelers who care more about saving money than about eating an airline meal or collecting frequent-flier points.

Launched three years ago, easyJet is among the fastest-growing the new carriers and makes no secret of modeling itself after Southwest, the most successful U.S. low-fare, no-frills airline.

Like Southwest, easyJet uses only Boeing 737 jets, has no reserved seats, boards passengers in the order in which they check in, trains its employees to be cheery and efficient, and keeps its fares low and simple.

One-way fares on easyJet and other no-frills carriers range from about $65 to $265 (based on an exchange rate of $1.67 to one British pound), depending on when you book your flight and the distance you're traveling. That's as much as 75 percent less than travelers pay on the same routes from London airports served by larger airlines, such as British Airways.

EasyJet uses a Southwest-like orange scheme for its logo, uniforms and airplanes. It also gives each employee a copy of the book "Nuts! Southwest Airlines' Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success," by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg.

Under-used airports

EasyJet is based at Luton Airport, an under-used field 40 miles north of central London that had been used mostly by charter airlines that fly vacationers to Europe's sunny Mediterranean destinations. EasyJet's success at Luton has prompted other airlines to increase service to the airport.

Southwest got its foothold in the airline business in the 1970s by using Love Field in Dallas, the city's older, secondary airport.

About the only difference in flying Southwest and easyJet is that on easyJet, a soft drink costs 50 pence, or about 84 cents, while it's free on Southwest.

EasyJet started in 1995 with routes between Luton and Scotland's major cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow. It's done well enough that it now flies to 13 European cities, from Athens, Greece, to Inverness, Scotland.

Just as major U.S. airlines Delta, United and US Airways have launched separate, low-fare units in recent years, Go, the newest competitor in Europe's low-fare field, is wholly owned by British Airways.

Go started flying in May with service between London's Stansted Airport and Copenhagen, Denmark; Milan, Italy; and Rome, and has added service to Bologna, Italy; Edinburgh; and Lisbon, Portugal.

Like easyJet and Southwest, Go flies only Boeing 737s. Unlike those carriers, a passenger can get a reserved seat on a Go flight, but only at the airport on the day of the trip.

Stansted Airport is 35 miles northeast of London and, while larger than Luton, also is secondary to the better-known Heathrow and Gatwick airports. From Heathrow or Gatwick, business travelers typically pay three times or four times as much to fly on major airlines to the cities served by Go.

Court challenge

While operating separately from British Airways, Go received $25 million in start-up capital from its parent, which prompted easy-Jet to sue British Airways in British civil court before Go was launched, on the grounds that Go was being unfairly subsidized.

EasyJet argued that British Airways' primary purpose in starting Go was to use its position as Britain's largest and richest airline to run smaller low-fare carriers out of business, after which it would raise fares.

A British court turned down -easyJet's petition to keep Go from starting operations, but agreed that easyJet's case had enough merit to let a jury decide it. The suit is pending in the British court system.

Go said it is an independent operation from British Airways that is intended to serve consumers' growing appetite for no-frills, low-fare service. Go has no intention of driving any competitor out of business, spokeswoman Sue Harrison said.

"We believe there is room for all of us in the market," she said. "It means customers get excellent fares, more choice in airports served, and just better service overall."

Pub Date: 9/28/98

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