Flights may soon be free, says airline chief

Pretty fly: Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary is known for his eccentric management style. © PA

At a recent conference, Ryanair’s boss made a striking statement. Within five to ten years, he said, flight tickets could cost nothing. Sounds fun, but is free travel really a good idea?

In the 1950s, a flight from London to Edinburgh may have cost a week’s wages. In the 1990s, the same ticket was ‘cheap as a pair of jeans’. In ten years, it could be free.

This is the dream of Michael O’Leary, CEO of the low-cost airline Ryanair. This week, he outlined his vision: to fully subsidise flights by taking a share of airports’ retail profits. More passengers would fly, so more would be spent in the airport. It is a radical idea.

Ryanair is known for its extreme bargains. It has sold tickets for 1p in the past, and last year it tried (and failed) to offer free flights in Greece. But never has an airline charged zero as a general policy. Short of gathering air miles, winning a competition or being born in the sky, you currently have to pay to fly.

Commercial airlines revolutionised the way we travel. Taking off after the second world war, the industry opened up new parts of the globe to tourists and businesses. In 1820, the poet John Keats took almost three months to get to Rome; now, a flight from London takes under three hours.

For decades, however, few could afford to fly. That changed in the 1970s, when Southwest Airlines began to experiment with ways to cut costs. The company inspired Ryanair and easyJet, low-cost airlines launched in the 1990s. Suddenly, air travel was for everyone: rich or poor, old or young.

Traveller numbers skyrocketed. Today, Ryanair and easyJet carry more international passengers than any other airline. Some destinations, such as Magaluf, have benefited enormously from the influx of tourists. Others, like the Icelandic town of Keflavik, have been practically created from scratch. Yet just as these airlines can make a place, they can break one: when Ryanair started flying to Barcelona in 2010, nearby Girona airport lost 60% of its passengers.

O’Leary’s plan is not a promise – it comes with conditions. But it could work, raising the prospect of a future in which cost is no barrier to travel. What if we could go anywhere for free?

Really, O'Leary?

Just imagine, say some. Thanks to the internet, we know about the whole world. How great would it be to see it all with our own eyes? Every country would receive an economic boost, and tourists would be spread more evenly across destinations, avoiding congestion. Best of all, the elitism of travel would disappear for good.

But think of the consequences, reply others. Planes would be full all the time, and airports would be chaotic. The number of flights would balloon, causing untold environmental damage. People would always be abroad, causing communities to collapse. And the very magic of travel – the thrill of discovery, the fun of taking a break from life – would be gone.

You Decide

  1. Should everyone travel?
  2. Is tourism the same as travel?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have six weeks’ holiday and all flights are free. Where would you go? Come up with an itinerary.
  2. Read the two travel articles on Afghanistan in Become An Expert. How do they differ, and how do they reflect the age in which they were written? Answer in 800 words.

Some People Say...

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”

Robert Louis Stevenson

What do you think?

Q & A

But I don’t like travelling.
That’s fine! Travelling often means ditching your home comforts, surrendering a bit of control over your daily schedule, and having to get by in a language you don’t speak. For many, it’s not worth the effort. And with travel blogs, YouTube documentaries and Google Street View, the opportunities for ‘armchair travel’ are greater than ever.
Should I still take a gap year?
Cheap flights and dedicated programmes mean that taking a year out after school is easier than ever. Even if you’re not sold on travelling, an interesting internship abroad may change your mind. But gap years don’t have to be about travel: you can stay home and work for a charity or get some professional training. And if you don’t want to have one, then don’t – you won’t be at a disadvantage.

Word Watch

Cheap as a pair of jeans
A slogan used by easyJet in the 1990s.
CEO
Chief executive officer – in other words, the company’s top manager.
Greece
In the midst of the country’s economic crisis, Ryanair offered not to charge for some domestic flights – on the condition that Greek authorities waived aviation fees too. The authorities declined.
Born in the sky
In September, a woman gave birth to a boy aboard a Buraq Air flight. The airline offered the baby free flights for life. Other companies have done the same.
Ways to cut costs
For example, the company crammed more seats into its planes and reused the same aircraft more often.
Air travel
Low-cost airlines only dominate short-haul flights (roughly up to 3hrs). They have yet to crack the market for longer flights.
Keflavik
Ryanair passengers heading for Reykjavik (the capital) land in this town. See the BBC article in Become An Expert.
Conditions
First, airports would have to agree to this unusual business model. Second, the government would have to lower or abolish the air passenger duty, an expensive tax levied on all adults.

Subjects

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