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Are Budget Airlines Killing the Planet?

They're cheap, easy and disastrous for the environment, according to German environmentalists. No-frills airlines are under attack in a new awareness-raising campaign.

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Airlines are cashing in on the budget travel craze, but are the eco costs too high?

There was a time, not so long ago, when air travel was the domain of the at least moderately well-to-do. That was before the birth of budget airlines, whose revolutionary fare structures allowed passengers to fly off to a sunny isle for the weekend or do some European city hopping at extremely low cost.

Fewer Germans may be flying than ever before, but those that are, are flying budget. No frills airlines like Ryanair, Germania, Germanwings, Air Berlin and Hapag-Lloyd Express are cashing in with offers to fly all over Europe as well as within Germany for as little as €20 ($22).

Hahn Airport, where many of Germany's budget flights take off and land, saw over a million travellers pass through its gates in 2002, an 81 percent increase over the previous year. In August alone, two million passengers flew between various European destinations with Irish no-frills airline Ryanair.

But the promise of über-cheap tickets and easy on-line or telephone booking hasn't impressed Germany's environmental lobby. They say the no-frills boom has made air traffic Germany's "climate killer no. 1." They are launching a major awareness-raising campaign this week to encourage people to get out of the jet and hop onto the train.

Let the train, not the plane, take the strain

A coalition of German environmental and related groups -- including BUND, forest-protection league Robin Wood, environmentalists Germanwatch, the Travel Club of Germany (VCD) and the German Association Against Aircraft Noise -- have joined forces for a campaign which will be launched on Thursday in the city of Düsseldorf. The marketing campaign is all about advising holiday makers to think twice before they jump on a plane.

"We want people to ask themselves: is it worth it? Perhaps it would be better for the environment to take the car or the train," Helmer Pless, travel expert at the Travel Club of Germany, told Deutsche Welle.

Greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide emissions from aircraft are three times higher than those emitted by cars.

"A plane emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a much higher level. At such heights, it does far more damage then exhaust fumes from cars, because they emit fumes at ground level," Pless said.

The complaints by the environmentalists are backed up by the German government. The Federal Environment Office says the increase in air traffic over Germany's skies and the resulting carbon dioxide emissions will increase the damage done to the ozone layer by 2030 by a factor of three.

The VCD hopes that the leaflet campaign will encourage more holiday makers to take the train instead. "It's the most environmentally-friendly alternative," Pless said.

The VCD is independent of Germany's railway system, Deutsche Bahn.

Misleading Ads

According to the campaign organizers, it's not just the environment that is paying a heavy price for the no-frills airline boom. Consumers often don't know all the costs that are involved and wind up paying more than they expected, according to Pless. Advertising offering flights at next-to-nothing prices can mislead consumers.

"The number of seats that are available at these prices are often very limited," Pless says. "The prices always include other, hidden costs."

The no-frills critics have asked Germany's antitrust office to check whether the advertising is legal.

The campaign is also directed at the German government, which continues to subsidize airplane fuel prices, as do other countries. According to BUND, the subsidies make it easy for the low-cost airlines to continue to make profit, while the trains lose out. A report the organization recently put out said the tax breaks on fuel mean airlines are able to sell a ticket from Berlin to Munich for at least €16 less than the rail system can.

One airline answers the charges

The press spokesman for the no-frills flyer Germanwings, Hans-Joachim Schoettes, defended his company's environmental record. He said the company, unlike some others, uses modern aircraft with up-to-date pollution controls.

"We only use Airbus 320 and Airbus 319 planes," he told Deutsche Welle. "They are the most low-emission aircraft on the market."

Schoettes also hit back at the charge levelled by the campaign that low-cost airlines lure customers with promises of cheap flights when in fact, the cheap seats have often already been sold.

"It's absolute rubbish to say that. We offer customers absolute price transparency," he said. "We have also been tested by the Consumer Protection Association, which found at least 15 to 20 percent of all flights on our website are in the lowest price category. That's a far larger percentage than many of our competitors."

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