Boarding Now On Flights of Fancy

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 5, 2006

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- Marc Burridge was wearing his trousers again, no longer dressed in the platinum blonde wig, orange skirt and black fishnet stockings that he wore on the flight over from London. But the ruby-red nail polish, another part of his costume for his weekend bachelor party, was still visible as he curled his fingers around a Glock handgun and started firing.

"We certainly couldn't do this at home," said Burridge, 32, a British engineer, as he stood at a snow-covered shooting range just west of this Slovakian city near the Austrian border. Doing things they couldn't do at home -- handguns are banned in Britain and fishnets for men are frowned upon -- is part of the reason Burridge and his eight friends came to this city along the Danube. But the main reason is price: The two-hour flight from London can cost less than $40 roundtrip.

"Cheap flights have opened up all these places to us," Burridge said. "The prices are so low that it can be more expensive to stay home." He noted that a pint of beer in Bratislava costs $1, compared with $5 in England, so the weekend's savings on beer alone could maybe pay for his airline ticket.

Flights as cheap as bus fares are changing the rhythm of European life. Growing numbers of Europeans are buying second homes in other countries because they can afford to travel to them frequently, creating building booms along seasides from Croatia to Portugal. Low airfares have also given rise to Euro commuters -- the increasing numbers of people who work in one country and spend weekends with their families in another.

Some Britons are flying to Hungary, which has become a hub for good-quality, affordable dental care, and finding the bill for a crown and the airfare is less than a trip to a private dentist at home.

Above all, cheap flights have redefined the European weekend. Some off-peak tickets are now offered for $25 on popular routes such as London to Salzburg, Glasgow to Paris and Dublin to Valencia. Millions of people, especially in Britain, Ireland and Germany, now fly off for what are called weekend "city breaks" in other countries as often as they once drove to the nearest coast or lake.

Ryanair, the largest European low-cost carrier, said it carried 35 million passengers last year, up from 7 million in 2000. Another low-fare giant, easyJet, ferried 30 million people, up from 6 million in 2000.

"It has democratized flying," said Stephen Hogan, spokesman for the Brussels-based Airports Council International, who said a flight from Dublin to Paris in the mid-1990s cost about $600 if booked in advance. It now costs as little as about $50. "It makes the dream of Europe possible -- the free movement of people within countries."

Of course, some people wish many of these travelers would stay home. Pubs in Dublin, once overrun with Britons throwing stag parties, are now banning rowdy groups of binge-drinking British men. Barcelona, another favorite destination, is cracking down with new fines on disorderly drunken behavior. Some villagers in France and Spain say they preferred life before the invasion of English-speaking property owners.

The cheap flight era was greatly aided by the creation of the single European market for air transport at the end of the 1990s. European carriers obtained practically unlimited freedom to choose their routes, capacity, schedules and fares, said Jan Skeels, secretary general of the European Low Fares Airline Association.

As national governments cut back on protections for their state airlines, affordable air travel really boomed after 2000. And while some analysts predict that rising fuel prices will soon end the party, airlines disagree, saying they are already discussing ways to keep it going by turning profits on new services such as in-flight mobile phones and gambling.

Airlines also keep fares lower by flying short distances -- almost never more than 2 1/2 hours -- to fill the same seat several times a day. They also use secondary or regional airports.

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