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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.

A really cheap date

Melons, The Pope, and stampeding women. All for a bite of that budget airline action.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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FIVE US DOLLARS doesn’t buy a whole lot these days. A blushingly ripe, delicately packaged winter melon in Tokyo alone would set you back over US$150, not to mention the carnage after screaming hordes of Hong Kong girls have trampled all over you for a photo-op, in 10 mega-pixels, with the world’s most expensive fruit. A cheap Hong Kong-Bangkok roundtrip on a full-service airline – the kind that actually has a few snarling engines and stewardesses – works out to around US$350. And then there’s fuel surcharges, the airport tax, the insurance premiums, and other bits and bobs that work out to another US$100.

All this for the pleasure of watching the latest episode of CSI Miami, featuring a cameo appearance by David Caruso and frequent gripping revelations by the captain about the flight path, barometric pressure, tailwinds and air traffic congestion. You learn that the outside temperature is a butt-numbing minus 30C. Suddenly the 10-degree-centigrade cabin temperature and the icicles hanging off your nose seem cosy and romantic. Your girlfriend is so chilled out she hasn’t moved in an hour and probably won’t again. This is the stuff of adventure.

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So you’ve paid out US$450 to head to the City of Angels, carrying your prized Japanese winter melon. Not a bad price in this day and age. Of course those screaming hordes of Hong Kong girls will still find out and interrupt their Hello Kitty tour to stampede in your general direction. Well, it’s one way to meet girls. If you survive the mauling it’s US$150 well spent. But, melon plus ticket, is US$600.

Those screaming hordes of Hong Kong women will find you and your Japanese winter melon and make you pose...

Which brings us back to the original question: what exactly does US$5 buy? In Hongkong, that’s a short taxi ride. In Bangkok it’s a t-shirt. Only in Incredible India can you can extract incredible value and stretch a meagre US$5 to last about a year – by borrowing inventively from your brother-in-law.

Or you could fly from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on an AirAsia special. The slew of budget airlines now zinging across the skies, and not just in Asia, are opening up new possibilities – holiday flights for the price of a well-packaged fruit. Bangkok-Singapore for early bird bookings is at just over US$10, about the price of three beers in Patpong, making this a difficult choice for some. VIVA Macau inaugurated its December 2006 Macau-Maldives flight with a one-way price of just HK$888 (US$113). This is a useful saving for an island destination where a one-night-stand on the sand is upwards of US$400, at a cheaper establishment.

In India, cash-strapped Air Deccan still serves up outrageous US$15 fares. (It is still more expensive to fly Delhi-Bangalore on a regular airline than Delhi-Bangkok.) Air Deccan has recently been propped up by Kingfisher Airlines, a full-service operator with lofty ambitions. Penang-based FireFly utilises 50-seat Fokkers to service Langkawi, Phuket and Koh Samui. And, hoping to carve out a separate niche for itself, Thailand’s Nok Air inaugurated a Bangalore-Bangkok run to claim the curious mantle of “Shoppers’ Airline” as passengers originating in India are offered shopping discounts of up to 50 percent at select outlets at Siam Paragon and Emporium.

Now, in the US, spunky no-frills carrier Skybus is once again rewriting the rules. If you happen to be in Columbus, Ohio, where the airline is headquartered, you can fly from there to a growing list of US destinations at just US$10 though you may pay more for a soda and a pillow. Skybus CEO Bill Diffenderffer bravely believes passengers should only be charged for their actual consumption of space and facilities. The airline’s A-319s feature six-abreast seating in a 3-3 configuration with a wide centre aisle. Meals cost extra and checked in baggage is US$5 apiece. Says Diffenderffer, “Why should you pay for sodas and blankets that other people use and you don’t?” Exactly. While all seats are not priced at US$10, at least ten seats are reserved for this fare class on every flight.

Smiling cabin crew will offer spiritual guidance which sure as heck beats those dull safety demonstrations...

Mirroring AirAsia’s success in flying to secondary low-cost airports close to major urban conurbations, Skybus (www.skybus.com) flies to accessible secondary airports like Oakland (San Francisco), Burbank (Los Angeles), and Portsmouth (Boston). Not only does this structure bring down operating costs dramatically, it eliminates taxiway delays. At JFK New York average taxiing time is around half an hour compared with 10 minutes at smaller airports. Skybus has also abandoned the popular hub-and-spoke system to offer just direct, non-connecting flights. This means less lost baggage and fight delays.

Why is Diffenderffer offering such cheap rates? Well, for one, with a name like that, it’s impossible to get a date. Bill Clinton’s out and about too mopping up the talent. Winter melons are expensive, so cheap flights are a great way to get women to stampede in your general direction. It is also good economics and savvy marketing.

It’s a catholic trend. The Pope is cashing in too. The new Vatican charter Mistral Air (www.mistralair.it) utilising converted cargo planes from the Italian postal service offers pilgrims seats at 10 percent off regular adult fares for a day’s devotion at places like Lourdes, France. Cabin crew can offer spiritual guidance aloft, which surely beats those dull safety demonstrations. “Madam, are we going down?” “No, no, sir, we are all going up.” As the motto emblazoned on the headrests proclaims, “I’m Searching for Your Face, Lord.”

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