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Will the European Union's friendly skies see air fare wars?

No fewer than three airports serve this sprawling and vibrant city, scheduled to become capital of a reunited Germany two years from now. But anyone who wants to fly to Frankfurt, Germany's banking and financial center, has exactly one choice in airlines: Lufthansa. A round-trip economy ticket costs about $400.

Competition has yet to make a big dent on air fares in Germany, or indeed in much of Europe. Since countries in the European Union adopted rules three years ago to open up the airline market, more than 80 small and cut-rate airlines have sprouted up _ but 60 of them have already folded. According to a report last year by the European Commission in Brussels, only 6 percent of all routes in Europe are served by more than two carriers.

That is the bad news. The good news: Leisure travelers able to stay over a weekend can find some good bargains on routes within Europe, and there may be a new wave of competition this summer. The surviving start-up airlines offer many budget flights, often on comparatively obscure routes. The new entrants include Ryan Air of Ireland, which offers a round-trip ticket from Dublin to London for $99; Air Liberte of France and Air Nostrum of Spain.

And as of April 7, countries in the European Union will be required to allow greater competition within their borders. The current rules opened the market for greater competition on routes between European countries. But most countries still block foreign airlines from offering domestic service within their borders, which is a big reason why Lufthansa retains a monopoly on heavily traveled routes like Frankfurt to Berlin.

After April, however, companies such as Air France or British Airways will be able to take on Lufthansa. If British Airways flies through any two cities in France or Germany, it can market the German segment on its own to consumers in Germany.

The big carriers are busy preparing for the April changes. British Airways owns slightly less than half of Deutsche BA, a new German airline, and it is expected to take full control once the new rules take hold. The same is true in France, where British Airways owns TAT and recently won a takeover fight to capture Air Liberte.

Travel experts are not predicting American-style price wars. Air fares in Europe remain much higher than those in the United States. One estimate is that the cost per mile on discount or economy tickets on a traditional 1,000-mile route in the United States would be about 41 cents versus 59 cents in Europe _ about 42 percent higher.

Many travelers may draw the same conclusion they have in years gone by: Take the train.

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