Nine European airlines today announced they would be joining forces to sell cheap holidays directly to customers over the internet.

The online travel shop, called Opodo, will be launched later this year in a bid to cut out other internet travel sites such as eBookers and

British Airways and Air France are among the airlines that will be joining forces to sell cheap getaways. American Airlines set up a similar site earlier this year.

"We want to sell flights at the best prices we can to our customers," said a British Airways spokesperson. "The success of the American venture marked the need for such a site and showed customers don't want to deal with the middleman."

The venture, headed by Giovanni Bisignani, former boss of Italian airline Alitalia, will provide websites for every European country.

"We believe [we are] about to witness an explosion in demand which will surpass the US as early as 2004," said Bisignani, whose Opodo sites will offer customers a choice of flights from over 480 airlines as well as worldwide hotel bookings and car hire.

"We have seen a massive growth in internet sales over the past couple of years alone. People find the service quick and easy and are making huge saving by cutting out the travel agent," said a spokesperson at Ryanair, which has taken over seven million bookings via its website in the last year.

The European online travel market currently has an estimated value of £3.7bn, a figure that is expected to grow by a massive £21bn by 2005.