MURCIA, Spain — The boom in low-cost air travel has turned this corner of southern Spain into a thriving tourist destination, and retired plumbers and schoolteachers into Europe’s new jet set.
But it has done more than democratize air travel and offer new vistas to working-class people. It has also opened a new dimension to the global warming crisis.
A typical British beach weekend, for instance, might begin here, with a landing at San Javier airport in Murcia. This former military airfield, where cockney English is commonly heard and huge sculptures of golf balls adorn the halls, now receives flights daily from Ryanair, easyJet and Spanair from cities like Blackpool, Bournemouth, Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and Shannon, to name a few — as well as more than half a dozen flights from London.
Coming from Germany? Air Berlin flies here from Berlin, Bremen, Cologne, Dortmund, Dresden, Düsseldorf (that’s only to the D’s).
Even with the rise in fuel prices, the low-cost airlines in this extremely competitive market still offer flights for less than the cost of a train ticket in Britain or Germany.
At a time when airlines are already the fastest growing source of climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions — increasing nearly 5 percent a year according to a report last week from the European Environment Agency — the new low-cost industry is pumping a huge amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
It is also laying down an infrastructure that guarantees high emissions for years. Low-cost flights have spawned dozens of new pastel-colored, low-cost condominium developments catering to foreigners, which now line Murcia’s scraggly roads.
“Low cost carriers are growing at 9 percent a year, and from an environmental point of view that is a problem,” said Christian Brand, a researcher at Oxford University who specializes in the mathematical modeling of transportation emissions. “Their cheap prices encourage more travel.”
Air travel of all kinds has increased, including private corporate jets and freight flights carrying fruit to markets all over the world. But the growth in passengers on European low-cost airlines has been phenomenal, almost doubling to 120 million per year in 2007 from about 60 million per year in 2005, according to the European Low Fares Airline Association.
Europe’s low-cost airlines are responding to surging demand in an increasingly borderless European Union, and they carry not just tourists but increasingly workers from poorer member states like Poland who have found jobs in Western Europe.
Higher fuel costs may slow the trend but not reverse it, analysts say, because so many homeowners have pumped their life savings in their second homes, and Murcia in turn now depends on their business.
There is much evidence, in fact, that Europe’s low-cost airlines are actually benefiting from oil prices and economic downturn, as even wealthier customers have become more concerned about prices. Low-cost airlines here have raised prices a bit, but not nearly as much as traditional airlines. For example, Air Berlin’s profits were up 20 percent in the first quarter of 2008 compared with a year earlier, in part because of increased ticket sales, the company said.
Flights on many of these budget airlines start around 50 euros with tax, or about $78, but can be as low as 10 euros, about $16, if booked far enough in advance. Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, vowed this month that cheap flights would continue, with the airline’s ticket prices rising only around 5 percent this year, despite the rising cost of fuel. Ryanair’s average ticket price is 40 euros, about $63.
With a sluggish economy in much of Europe, the number of passengers to Murcia dipped slightly in recent months, but the number of flights (and emissions) remained the same. The long-term trends and their environmental costs are clear and surprisingly high, Mr. Brand said.
A couple flying round trip from Leeds, England, to would generate about 1,400,000 grams of carbon dioxide, according to Mr. Brand’s calculations. A traditional driving vacation to the Lake District in central England would generate fewer than 20,000 grams, or one-seventieth, of that amount, he said.
And those numbers are multiplied by the staggering increase in the number of travelers at places like San Javier airport in Murcia: the number of passengers increased to 848,037 in 2004 from 88,608 in 1995, according to Aena, the main operator of Spanish airports.
Last year, the number reached 1,905,182 — a more than twentyfold increase in little over a decade. That translates into more than one trillion grams of carbon dioxide a year, according to a model by Mr. Brand.
But for many, the economics of flying cheap are proving more compelling than the environmental consequences. With prices for gas and hotels at all-time highs in Britain and Germany, it is, somewhat bizarrely, more economical to fly to Spain, even for a weekend, than to take a traditional driving vacation near home.
“With bed and breakfasts running £80 to £110 a night, it is cheaper to fly to Spain for the weekend than to drive to the Lake District, so there is incredible latent demand,” Mr. Brand said.
Often flying from secondary airports just outside European capitals, the dozens of low-cost airlines offer cheap competition to the national airlines, like Air France and Alitalia, which have been slow to respond to market forces.
Such flights have in turn created an explosion of new resorts and vacation-home developments in places like Murcia catering to Europe’s new low- and middle-income tourists. These low-cost resorts — £3,000, or $5,924, down seals the right to a condo in Murcia — are feeding the need for low-cost flights, according to European real estate experts.
Encouraged and enabled by a profusion of low-cost airlines, Britons are now the world’s biggest owners of foreign second homes as a percentage of population, according to Spanish government statistics.
Huge marketing efforts in Britain and Spain have encouraged the trend.
“There are literally thousands of developments all offering different kinds of promotions,” said David Browning, a retired engineer from Wales, between drives at his condominium development’s two-year-old golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.
The growth in emissions from air travel had “far exceeded growth by any other mode,” a European Environment Agency report issued this year said. Between 1990 and 2005, the last full year from which data were available, total carbon dioxide emissions from aviation in the European Union grew by 73 percent.
“This could threaten the ability of the E.U. to meet increasingly ambitious emission reduction targets,” the report’s authors said.
The European Low Fares Airline Association argues that low-cost airlines are a “green” alternative compared with conventional airlines, because low-cost airlines tend to have newer, more efficient fleets and their flights run nearly full, creating lower average emissions per passenger. But that does not take into account the huge growth in flying that they have created.
In fact, no one has apparently studied or quantified their cumulative emissions. Even the United Nations World Tourism Organization, which is based in Madrid and last year publicly adopted sustainable tourism as one of its fundamental principles, has not looked at the issue.
“As low-cost carriers are becoming really major players, I’d guess there may be some extra attention devoted to them,” said Marcelo Risi, a spokesman for the group.
Some 17,000 Britons now have a residence in Murcia, up from 1,000 a decade ago, according to a British government survey. A British school, King’s College Murcia, opened on the grounds of a golf resort this year.
While some people, like Mr. Browning, the retired engineer, live here more or less full time, others find that cheap flights allow them to shuttle back and forth frequently from northern Europe — or just pop down for a weekend round of golf.
Jens Strom, a businessman from Norway, was playing the nearly empty course at the Alhambra resort outside Murcia. “The courses are great,” he said. “Everybody who plays golf in Europe knows about this area now.”
Norwegian Air Shuttle flies to Murcia from Bergen, Oslo, Stavanger and Trondheim. Prices start around 100 euros, about $160.
Two years ago, Steve Forber, who owns a company outside of Liverpool that sells and installs equipment for people with disabilities was looking for a vacation home in southern Spain.
But with new, cheap flights he realized he could lead a life that spanned both countries. He now owns branches of Wheelie Free Mobility in England and Playa Flamenca, Spain, flying back and forth every two to three weeks on Ryanair from Liverpool to Murcia.
“I fly more than most pilots.” he said. “Quite a few people commute this way. Cheap flights make it possible.”
(source : http://travel.nytimes.com)