December 30, 2013 4 Comments
Everyone who has been following Serbian aviation will know that in less than a year, the local market underwent a revolutionary process at the end of which a new airline emerged- Air Serbia. When Etihad announced its intentions to takeover Jat Airways, it seemed that anyone and everyone in Serbia felt that they should publicly express their views and opinions regardless of how familiar they were with civil aviation. It’s worth pointing out that from the start almost everyone agreed that something had to be done with Jat Airways; disagreements emerged over what kind of business model the airline should follow.
Scepticism related to Air Serbia’s future started long before the airline’s business plan was made public. As early as February 2013, roughly the same time when first takeover rumours surfaced, a large number of sceptics did not believe there were any good enough reasons for a premium airline such as Etihad to even consider investing in a failing carrier such as Jat Airways. Even though I was part of the minority which believed that this scenario was very much possible, I can understand where the anger of the majority was coming from. For years and years, Jat Airways CEOs were politically appointed people with no aviation skills or knowledge- I have even dedicated entire posts on this blog to talk of this problem. Some of these CEOs have even managed to make the airline a laughing stock by proposing, for example, to sell tickets in post offices and on the streets.
In addition to a non-existent business plan, the airline’s fleet renewal strategy was often discussed as its fleet of 10 Boeing B737-300s were well over 25 years old. The airline also operated a fleet of 4 regional, turboprop aircraft (Atr 72-200), however, these were often neglected as the Boeing fleet constituted the airline’s backbone. Though the aircraft were safe, their comfort and efficiency were well below the industry standard which prevented the airline from being competitive not only internationally but also domestically. The latter was a serious problem for the Serbian carrier as its market share at Belgrade airport was constantly dropping over the last several years as a result of the liberalization of the Serbian market. In the end, Jat Airways managed to stop this negative trend and so it kept a market share of around 40% at Belgrade airport. Naturally, Jat Airways’ management, without any aviation knowledge, did this by considerably reducing its fares on almost all routes. Even though its passenger numbers did manage to recover, its yields collapsed. This is because the airline, one could argue, introduced a new business model- one that required a light cost structure. The airline’s management was probably not aware of this hence why the airline’s state only worsened with the passing of time. On the outside the airline seemed to be doing ok but behind the scenes the situation was precarious as the airline was slowly moving towards bankruptcy.
In early 2013, the situation went from bad to worse as the airline’s winter timetable collapsed as a result of bad C check scheduling. In other words, a considerable part of the airline’s fleet was grounded which left the management with no alternative choice but to cancel numerous flights. This further hurt the airline’s image and reputation among the travelling public. It is also worth mentioning that the airline failed to keep up with modern aviation trends as it lacked a competitive frequent flyer programme as well as the option of online check-in. Simply put, Jat Airways was a dying dinosaur of an airline.
The first major development took place on 15 April 2013 when the two airlines, Etihad and Jat Airways, formalized their cooperation. Two months later, Etihad launched daily, direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Belgrade with the smallest aircraft in its fleet, Airbus A319. Throughout the summer season, Etihad experts evaluated the overall state of the Serbian national carrier before formally announcing a minority takeover on 1st August 2013. Even though the official takeover was scheduled to take place on 01st January 2014, the airline took immediate charge of Jat Airways. By mid-September, Etihad proposed a new CEO, Danny Kondic, a man with vast aviation experience. Regardless of his experience and professionalism, a certain Serbian aviation portal did not waste its time to attack the government’s decision for allowing the previous (politically appointed) CEO, Velibor Vukasinovic, to be deposed. According to this portal, Mr Vukasinovic had done a lot to save Jat Airways’ summer operations by leasing a total of four new aircraft; two Boeing B737-300 from Bulgaria and two Atr 72-500 from a Danish leasing company. Even though this was a good move and it did help with the summer schedule, the candidate proposed by Etihad had far more experience from internationally acclaimed airlines and aviation businesses. In other words, by bringing a new CEO such as Mr Kondic, the government ensured that the airline has a long-term development strategy. Furthermore, Vukasinovic might have saved the summer schedule from collapsing but he still did not show any intention of dealing with the fundamental problems with which the airline was faced. What the portal missed was that Vukasinovic merely prolonged the status quo for a bit longer before the whole structure would have come down crushing.
On top of everything, Mr Vukasinovic never worked directly for an airline; his aviation experience comes from working for government institutions which have little in common with running a successful aviation business. Just because Mr Vukasinovic was successful in his previous jobs does not mean he would have run Jat Airways/Air Serbia successfully, especially not since he did oppose the takeover. Many in Serbia tend to forget that running an airline and working for a civil aviation institution is not the same thing. The qualities required for each post are completely different; one is a technocrat while the other is a businessman. By opposing the deal with Etihad, Mr Vukasinovic proved to all of us that he was not a businessman and that he probably did not understand in what state Jat Airways truly was- in other words, it was on the brink of bankruptcy. Only Etihad with its fresh capital injection could have saved it, which it did, especially since the Serbian government was in no position to provide the funds needed to restructure and revitalize Jat Airways.
One can interpret Mr Vukasinovic’s departure as a symbolic one. It marked the end of an era where Jat Airways was a political toy misused by successive governments. It had become obvious that the only way for Jat Airways to survive was for a professional and financially strong partner to step in and introduce a modern work ethic and business strategy. Etihad did exactly that and positive results were noticed from the very start. Besides introducing new corporate identity, fleet and a revised flight schedule the airline managed to become, in just two months, the main factor of growth at Belgrade airport. During November 2013, the first month of Air Serbia’s operations, the airline recorded a 12% increase in passenger numbers. Even though passenger statistics for the month of December have not yet been published, Belgrade airport has forecast its own passenger growth to be close to 20%.
Belgrade airport’s phenomenal passenger growth could not have been achieved without Air Serbia and its new business strategy. Air Serbia’s future ambitions have been recognized in both Bucharest and Sarajevo where both Tarom and B&H Airlines have stepped forward and offered to cooperate with Air Serbia.
In the next blog post, I will take a closer look at what kind of airline Etihad and its team have created in Belgrade. In addition to this, I will present its main advantages and challenges.