by Simon Calder, The Independent, May 18, 2017
As I sipped a cafe con leche in the Es Far restaurant in Palma, I clicked on the “Pay" button. Monarch Airlines promptly collected €19 from my credit card: about £16.
Six hours later, I took off from the Mallorcan city, paying less for the 836 miles to Sussex than the fare for the 28 miles of the Gatwick Express to central London.
May is an excellent time to be an airline passenger, which means it’s a rubbish time to be an airline. The Monarch flight, aboard a comfortable Airbus A321 with friendly cabin crew and great pilots, was the most expensive of three flights I have taken in the past fortnight. From Luton to Copenhagen, I paid £10, while Hamburg-Stansted was £13, both on Ryanair Boeing 737s with friendly cabin crew and great pilots.
I'm equally adept at spending way over the odds. Earlier this month I paid £1,377 for a London-Perth return, roughly double the going rate, to ensure I was on the first scheduled UK-Australia flight next March. But the pricing model for short-haul scheduled airlines seems broken right now.
Normally fares soar in the last few days and hours before departure. Anyone booking so late is probably desperate to travel, goes the argument, and will therefore tolerate a high price.
Airlines provide a solution for someone making a “distress purchase” and, reasonably, extract the most they can from the seat. Indeed, before I started searching for flights I reckoned the privilege of booking so late would cost at least £100.
Instead, I paid one-sixth as much. So what’s happening? Intense competition, that’s what. In a crowded marketplace, with potential travellers’ attention distracted by the election and their appetite for adventure dimmed by political uncertainty, it’s a buyer’s market.
Which is handy if, as I was, you are on an assignment of indeterminate length — rather like the Thomson refurbishment project I had gone to examine at the AluaSoul Hotel in eastern Mallorca.
Underlining the pain in Spain, and every other European destination: this week easyJet revealed that for every passenger it flew between October 2016 and March 2017, it lost an average of £6.27.
Britain’s biggest budget airline did amazingly well at filling its planes, with nine out of 10 seats occupied right through the winter. In the olden days of high fares and lazy airlines, seven was regarded as adequate — to the detriment of the environment, passengers and investors (usually governments).
But don’t gloat about the market power that allows us to fly at short notice for small change. On the passenger/airline see-saw, as soon as the schools break up, the airlines are back in command. A Monarch flight from Gatwick to Preveza in Greece and back in August has takers at over £800 return. Excessive? No, meeting demand. No-one is forced to pay more to fly to the Med than to Melbourne, and if Monarch can earn those fares, good luck to it.
But if weak demand and strong competition outside the school holidays continues, the market will self-correct for next summer: airlines will take out capacity in a bid to eliminate the need to offer silly fares, and as a consequence that £800 ticket to Preveza and back could rise to £1,000.
And summer 2019? No-one knows what the European air map will look like after Brexit. Airlines from the UK and Ireland seized the advantage of “open skies” in the 1990s and now dominate in European aviation; the Irish giant, Ryanair, has its most important operations in Britain.
It would be comforting to think that all 27 EU countries will agree to allow the status quo to prevail. But while Spain, Portugal and Greece are happy to see any airline bringing in tourists, France, Germany and Italy may perceive gains in cutting the aviation venturers from far north-west Europe down to size. So while the sun shines on the British passenger, make hay and press “Pay”.