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East faces West in low cost skies over Europe

attitude Travel Guide to Low Cost European Airlines
Low Cost Airlines in Europe

This article was originally written at the beginning of 2004 and has now been archived. Though correct at the time of publishing, the low cost airlines industry landscape in Europe has continued to develop and many references in the article may no longer be accurate. For example, the Austrian low cost airline company, Fairline went into receivership in June 2004 and no longer exists. Also, at the time of writing, companies such as vueling in Spain and Jet X in Italy had yet to emerge.

This article should be seen in the context of January 2004 when it was written.

While it's true that budget travellers can now fly almost the entire expanse of Europe on no-frills airlines, it's certainly not the case that every country has its own home grown budget carrier. One of the most notable trends to date is the emergence of a new low cost airline company in northwestern Europe and Scandinavia almost every month, while Mediterranean and Eastern Europe apparently lack sufficient entrepreneurialism to make the most of the boom in low cost air travel.

But three of the newest no-frills startups in Europe suggest the balance may be changing. Air Polonia, based in Poland, Air Luxor Light, based in Portugal and bexx, based in Bulgaria are demonstrating that the low cost airline model may not be restricted to companies operating out of the north and west of Europe. All three are currently fairly small operations with Air Polonia running domestic flights with a single connection to London Stansted, bexx running charter-type flights between Sofia and five cities in Germany and Air Luxor Light connecting Portugal to a handful of principal cities in Spain, France Ireland and the UK. But these itineraries are no less ambitious than those of two of the most recent startups in western Europe: Fly Baboo, which connects Switzerland to Venice and Fairline which connects Graz in Austria to Rome, Milan and Florence.

The creation of Air Polonia and bexx mean that there are now effectively three low cost airlines operating out of Central Europe - SkyEurope which started up at the beginning of 2003 has established hubs at Budapest in Hungary and Bratislava in Slovakia. Nevertheless, the decision by both Italian and German budget carriers VolareWeb and germanwings to expand their networks eastward to Poland - VolareWeb already serves Albania and Romania - means that competition for low cost skies over Central Europe is likely to become fiercer than ever. The Ancona based low cost airline, eVolaVia, and fixed-price low cost German carrier Germania Express are the only budget airlines which presently fly as far east as Moscow and Germania Express is unique in that it also flies to Tbilisi in Georgia.

Surprisingly none of the Baltic countries yet have their own low cost airlines though the SAS affiliated Air Baltic, based in Riga in Latvia, is edging towards a low cost model with ticketless one-way flights and heavily slashed seat prices. According to the latest news reports from Prague, the Czech Republic, too, is about to enter into the budget airline market with the startup brand, SmartWings, due to launch in May. Perhaps the biggest mystery is why Spain and Greece, with so many sunshine resorts have yet to develop their own no-frills airlines.

Meanwhile, the boom in low cost air operations continues in the UK, which plays host to more no-frills carriers than any other country in western European. December saw the launch at Coventry airport of Thomson Fly, a new low cost airline run by the same German parent company (TUI) that operates Hapag-Lloyd Express. The company said that the board had made a decision to create a new brand rather than attempt to build a massive RyanAir style pan-European network but that Thomson Fly would be flying to many of the same destinations as the Rhineland-based Hapag Lloyd Express.

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