Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
Early in February 2022, my weekly newsletter was ready to send. It included a tantalising deal of the week. In late March, both Ryanair and Wizz Air were to start flying from London to Odesa. Suddenly British holidaymakers would be just three hours and a few 10s of pounds from one of Europe’s loveliest cities.
Odesa shares with St Petersburg heroic beauty and a dramatic history – yet with Black Sea beaches and a sunny disposition, Odesa is warmer and more indulgent than the former Russian capital on the Baltic. I booked on the first Ryanair plane out – and hoped to persuade other travellers to do the same.
The deal never appeared. Before the email was sent out, the foreign desk at The Independent told me of a build-up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s frontiers. I hurriedly found a more certain, if less compelling, bargain to share.
Since Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion, civil aviation in Ukraine has closed down. Thousands of people cross the Polish-Ukrainian border every day, but by bus and train. No airline would put a passenger plane up in a war zone: in 2014, long before the war, all 298 passengers and crew aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 died when pro-Russian separatists fired an anti-aircraft missile at a civilian Boeing 777.
Yet when the guns finally fall silent, one airline has vowed to send in the planes as soon as it is safe to do so.
“We have made a commitment that we will base up to 30 aircraft in Ukraine,” says Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary. To show he was serious, the CEO went to Kyiv (by train from Poland) to talk to the leaders.
“We met with the Ukrainian government at the highest levels. We have a plan to invest heavily and recover Ukrainian air traffic very quickly once the war is over.
“We will connect Kyiv, Lviv and Odessa, the three open airports, to up to 25 European cities within six weeks of the skies being reopened in Ukraine.
“I, like everybody else, hope that the Ukrainians will successfully repel the illegal Russian invasion and that we can get back to rebuilding and restoring the Ukrainian economy.”
Before the Russian invasion, Ryanair was the second-largest airline in Kyiv after the national carrier, Ukraine International.
The motive is not entirely philanthropic. There will be a clear first-mover advantage for the first budget airline to return at scale. And with millions of Ukrainians dispersed across Europe – some of whom will not return – the market potential is huge.
“We want to reunite Ukrainian families, allow the Ukrainians to go and visit their relatives who are living and working in the rest of Europe” said the airline boss.
There is no timeframe for that outcome – but meanwhile Ryanair is expanding eastward into Europe. At the end of October, when budget airlines traditionally rein in their operations, Michael O’Leary’s planes from Stansted will touch down in Poprad, central Slovakia, and the Albanian capital, Tirana.
Both cities are currently served from Luton on Wizz Air. Looking at fares for 1 November, the winter could turn out to be a financial bloodbath for the competing airlines. For a while some years ago, easyJet and Ryanair went head-to-head to Copenhagen. As a passenger, it was great: with a bit of flexibility on timing, you never needed to pay more than £20 between London and Copenhagen.
Wizz Air is selling Poprad for £21 on the first day of November – but Ryanair has halved that fare. Such conflicts are usually decided by who has the deepest pockets, and is prepared to sustain losses the longest.
Past performance in such battles suggests that the rival always throws in the towel before Ryanair. But meanwhile you might want to plan a quick mission to Slovakia or Albania to take advantage of absurd prices. I predict the battles of Tirana and Poprad will be over more quickly than the war in Ukraine.