European air bargains beat US deals

By Susan Stellin
New York Times / July 12, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Europe’s low-fare carriers may be best known in America for outrageous proposals to charge for bathroom access or offer stand-up seating, both ideas floated by Ryanair that were never adopted.

But travelers who have flown within Europe lately often took away a different impression - that airline tickets were surprisingly inexpensive, especially compared with prices to fly within the United States.

A one-way ticket between Edinburgh and Dublin, for instance, can cost as little as $40. A one-way ticket from New York to Washington, about the same distance, starts at $65. Both prices, which vary depending on the travel date, include taxes and unavoidable fees, but not baggage and other optional charges.

While it is tough to do a statistically rigorous comparison, especially since the EU does not collect fare data for its 27 members, there is little doubt that ticket prices have fallen sharply within Europe, despite higher fuel costs, because of an explosion of competition from low-fare airlines like easyJet and Ryanair. Although Southwest Airlines and other carriers have put similar pressure on prices within the United States, anecdotal data suggest that it is still generally more expensive to fly between major cities in America than it is to fly between cities in Europe.

“Even after taxes, you see a better fare per mile in the European Union than you do in the United States,’’ said Mark Milke, a director at the Fraser Institute, a public policy research group in Calgary, Alberta, who published a paper last year comparing the lowest fares available on a sample set of routes.

Using that data, Milke calculated that airline passengers traveling within a single country in Europe last year were paying about 11 cents a mile, including taxes and fees, or 14 cents a mile to fly between two European countries. In the United States, by contrast, passengers were paying about 23 cents a mile.

Pearce said European travelers had benefited from the fact that many large cities had multiple airports, allowing newer airlines access to these markets. That is not so much the case in the United States, where airlines like Southwest have fought to obtain scarce takeoff and landing slots in congested cities like New York.

European airlines also face more competition than their US counterparts from other forms of transportation, particularly Europe’s robust rail network.

Some analysts also suggest that Europe is going through a competitive phase that already took place in the United States after airline deregulation in the 1970s.

“They’re earlier in a process the US experienced a while ago,’’ William S. Swelbar, a research engineer with the MIT International Center for Air Transportation, said, stating that when adjusted for inflation, the average domestic fare in the United States has declined more than 50 percent since deregulation. “We have a maturing market and maturing airlines,’’ he said. “As a result we’re seeing prices go up.’’

Others argue that regulatory policies in the United States favor established airlines, stifling competition and making it harder for new carriers to enter the market and succeed.