Cheap travel: revolution in the air

Open Skies policy helped underpin free movement of people within the EU

Deregulation of air transport in Europe shrank distances, cut costs and broke down cultural barriers. Photograph: Alan Betson

Deregulation of air transport in Europe shrank distances, cut costs and broke down cultural barriers. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The European Commission is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its Open Skies policy, which brought affordable air travel to the public; transformed local economies; empowered customers and ended the cartel arrangements operated by national airlines. Deregulation helped to underpin the free movement of people within the EU. It shrank distances, cut costs and broke down cultural barriers.

Because of resistance by some governments and airlines, change did not come quickly or easily. As fares fell and direct flights to holiday destinations and regional cities were established, however, reform became unstoppable. Work on the project began in 1985 under the direction of Irish EU competition commissioner Peter Sutherland. By 1987, restrictions that allowed governments protect national carriers by blocking the introduction of low fares were removed and new entrants were encouraged. Final agreement on the creation of a Common Aviation Area in 1992 was a major achievement in promoting competition and the development of air transport.

Things did not always go as planned. Ryanair had to be rescued from bankruptcy by the government in 1989 and, as a protective measure, it was granted exclusive rights to fly from Dublin to Stansted and Gatwick. It never looked back. It now dominates the European point-to-point market, operating 16 per cent of all flights and carrying about 130 million passengers.

There are concerns. Carbon emissions from aircraft are rising as companies gear up to meet consumer demand. Aircraft have become more efficient and less noisy over recent years but the industry remains a polluting one in a phase of rapid growth. Deregulation has affected pay and conditions within the industry, with pilots, cabin staff and ground personnel coming under pressure. Pilots complain about indirect employment and zero hours contracts being introduced, particularly by low fares airlines.

The introduction of cheap air travel in Europe has had a global knock-on effect as Gulf state airlines and others have emerged to challenge the traditional flag-carriers. In response, there has been a wave of mergers, restructurings and privatisations within the sector to meet the threat. Costs have fallen and the public’s appetite to visit exotic places has grown. Travel times have contracted. Sea-borne journeys that once lasted weeks are accomplished within 24 hours. The world has become a smaller place.

The democratisation of air travel has had profound and positive effects. Brexit negotiations introduced concerns that, without accommodations on both sides, British aircraft might be excluded from the Common Travel Area. That would represent a political and imaginative disaster that would have long-term consequences for us all.

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