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Tiny Prices, Tiny Seats on Low-Fare Intercontinental Airlines

Despite the huge growth of low-fare airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue, and others, you don't see any low-fare lines to Asia or southern South America. Although a few transatlantic lines lay claim to the "low-fare" label, they're very limited.

Two big low-fare airlines tried it in the 1980s—first PEOPLExpress, then World Airways—and neither lasted long. Although some industry mavens have speculated that Southwest might give the Atlantic a try, the line has not shown any substantial interest.

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Two Canadian low-fare lines currently fly the Atlantic. Although they specialize in complete vacation packages, both also sell air seats separately. I show sample round-trip fares for trips in July:

  • Air Transat, the larger of the two, flies from seven major Canadian cities to Europe, with service to the U.K., Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. Most routes are seasonal (summer), and many routes operate only once weekly. Round-trip Toronto-to-London tickets are $887 nonstop, compared with the lowest nonstop fare on other lines of $1,331. Air Transat operates three different A310/330 versions, two outfitted with some of the world's narrowest nine-abreast economy seating. Air Transat also offers a business-class option, with a Toronto-London fare of $2,296, but its business class is probably closer to premium economy on the big lines (don't expect their lie-flat business-class seating.)
  • Sunwing flies from Montreal and Toronto to Paris and from Toronto to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Glasgow, Lisbon, London/Gatwick, Paris, and Rome. As with Air Transat, flights are seasonal and infrequent. The test Toronto-to-London trip is $676—a great price if you can tolerate the world's narrowest economy seats, eight abreast in a 767.

A few low-fare lines based in Europe also fly to the United States and Canada, although flights are aimed mainly at Europeans vacationing in North America rather than North Americans heading to Europe:

  • Meridiana Fly, formerly Eurofly, flies nonstop from New York to Naples and Palermo seasonally, with trips operating mid-June through September, once or twice weekly. My sample fare is $1,041; lowest connecting fare on other lines is $1,148. The price difference isn't great, but the nonstop schedule is a big advantage. Meridiana operates A330s with conventional economy seating. The line also offers a "business" class that is really more like premium economy, but at $1,967, the price is pretty good for a premium service.
  • Air Berlin is the successor to several low-fare lines, including LTU, that operated low-fare flights from the United States to Dusseldorf for decades. Currently, however, it seems to be morphing into something more like the giant lines. It flies nonstop to Dusseldorf from Ft. Myers, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco, as well as from New York to Berlin. The test New York-to-Dusseldorf round-trip is $776, compared with a $814 one-stop on Swiss and $1,307 on Lufthansa, or $834 nonstop to nearby Frankfurt on United. Air Berlin uses A330s with conventional eight-abreast economy seating; one plane also provides business-class seating at $2,556.
  • XL Airways recently announced summer-season nonstops to Paris from Las Vegas, New York, and San Francisco. XL says flights will begin May 26 but that schedules and fares will be available on its website "shortly." It will fly A330s with ultra-tight nine-abreast economy seating.

A few other European holiday airlines operate flights to the United States—mainly to Orlando/Sanford and Las Vegas—but their websites are not set up to accommodate itineraries originating in the United States or Canada.

No low-fare lines fly the Pacific. The only line that tried—Oasis—flopped after less than two years. And, for now, the outlook for any new entrants seems dim.

Independent low-fare airlines face tough going on intercontinental routes, where astronomical business-class fares in effect subsidize low-economy fares on the giant lines. You may see a few more wannabes giving it a try in the next year or two, but don't bet on success.

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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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