The Blairs fly budget class

by BETH HALE, Daily Mail

It was just another cheap and cheerful check-in scene at Ryanair - low fares, no frills, no reserved seats. You could even bring your own snacks.

But there are budget flights, and there are budget flights where the Prime Minister and his family just happen to be among the passengers.

So, anxious though he undoubtedly was to appear egalitarian, it was perhaps inevitable that the service Tony Blair received was elevated to a somewhat higher plane than that enjoyed by his 101 fellow travellers yesterday.

The family were heading off from Stansted Airport, Essex, on the third leg of their long drawn-out summer holiday.

After the exotic charms of Mexico and that rather climatically- challenged sojourn in Cornwall (honest, the rain didn't really bother them), their destination was the sunny South of France for a fortnight's break.

The Blairs had diplomatically decided to use Ryanair after murmurings of disapproval about alleged extravagance and freeloading on previous holidays.

Well, no one could dispute that this time they going downmarket ... if not downright bargain basement.

The Ryanair flight was the cheapest - indeed the only one - available to their chosen destination of Carcassonne.

It depends when you book and how busy the airline is, but the family probably paid around £200 per seat for their return tickets.

Had they taken a British Airways business class flight to Toulouse - a possible alternative - they would have been forking out another £2,500, Ryanair glee-fully alleged.

The Blair party, minus eldest son Euan, arrived at Stansted at about 10am - Tony, Cherie, 15-year-old Nicky, 13-year-old Kathryn, baby Leo, aged 15 months, and a nanny.

And there, the first of the frills was deftly added to their nofrills getaway.

Not for them the scrum at check-in. Instead of joining the crowds walking through the departure lounge and getting a shuttle train to the gate, the Blairs were driven straight out to the plane.

As we know, there is no advance seating allocation on Ryanair. Somehow, though, four rows of seats at the front of the plane had been reserved.

Other passengers boarding the 11.10am flight gazed longingly at the intriguingly empty prime positions, which normally would have been snapped up in the first rush.

Then, just ten minutes before the jet was due to depart, the Blairs came on board.

Cherie took a window seat and the Prime Minister left one empty seat between them before taking his seat by the aisle.

As seasoned plane travellers, they chose loose clothing. Cherie wore a beige trouser suit, while Mr Blair was in navy trousers and shirt with a lightweight grey jacket.

Over the intercom, the pilot greeted his passengers as usual, but made no mention of the VIP party.

During the two-hour flight, Mr Blair took time to play a game of peek-a-boo with little Leo - using the cover of the headrest in front.

And as the plane began its descent, baby Blair went to sleep on his sister's lap.

Only a short message from the captain may have jolted the Prime Minister out of his relaxed reverie - all passengers were instructed to dispose of any meat or meat products upon arrival.

At Carcassonne, the Blairs were ushered off the plane first, a car awaiting them. As other passengers were left wondering how long they would have to wait, Mr Blair swiftly signalled that it was okay to let them off.

Then, perhaps atoning for his preferential treatment, he started greeting his fellow travellers - his trademark gleaming smile to the fore.

Among those who met him was an eight-year-old American, Kirstin Lavas. When she had boarded with her father Alan she had not even known who Mr Blair was.

After meeting the Prime Minister, she said: 'He shook my hand and asked me where I was from, and I said Oregon. I can't wait to tell my friends.'

Her father said: 'It really was quite a surprise to see him on the flight.' Svetlina Chala, 23, who was returning to France, was equally surprised. 'I would have thought he would have flown with a different airline - maybe Air France,' she said.

Ryanair, understandably, was ecstatic over its coup in having the Blairs as passengers - and shamelessly took the chance to get in a few plugs for itself.

A spokesman said the flight had arrived 20 minutes early, adding: 'We're delighted that Prime Minister Blair and his family have chosen Ryanair, Europe's largest low fares airline, to transport them on this leg of their summer holiday.'

He said he hoped the family had enjoyed the airline's efficient and 'on time' services.

After their budget flight, the Blairs set off for the foothills of the Pyrenees.

They are understood to be staying in a chateau owned by High Court Judge Sir David Keene near the medieval town of Saint Martin D'oydes. A nofrills chateau, naturellement.

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