The Uniqueness of the Serbian Aviation Experts

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One does not get many chances to use ‘Serbian’ and ‘aviation experts’ in the same sentence without a dose of sarcasm or irony.It is a public secret that people in charge of Serbian aviation are usually there as a form of reward for their stellar and uncompromising allegiance to their political party. To be fair, political appointments do not represent the sole mechanism for employment since nepotism seems to be just as popular.

Though political appointments and nepotism are present in all societies of this world, the fact that this occurs in Serbia should come as no surprise. However, it seems that these practices are rooted so deeply within the Serbian mentality that qualified people are left with no other choice but to choose between emigration and working for a pathetic salary where career advances are not based on merit. Since most talented and competent Serbs seek ways to emigrate, the local aviation business is run by people who are there just because working for the national carrier (or any other government institution) beats being unemployed. Before continuing any further, I would like to emphasise that this trend does not apply to those who operate or service the aircraft but rather to those who are responsible for the management of the aviation business in the country.

Since 2000, when democracy replaced authoritarianism, little has been done to prepare the Serbian industry, especially the national carrier, for the unavoidable liberalization of the aviation market.

Both the airport and the national carrier saw a succession of ‘experts’ lead the Serbian aviation forward into regional leadership (we are still waiting for them to tell us what region they actually meant).

In May 2012 Serbia held national elections where a new coalition was formed. Everyone was anxious to find out what the new government coalition planned for Jat Airways and if their policies would bring about a change.

Beating all expectations the new government formed a task group, made up of experts, who were supposed to come up with a plan which would revitalize the national carrier and, according to the minister of transport, reduce the losses so that the airline might manage to just about break even.

In theory, this solution is simple and effective.

However, the only problem is that the experts in this group were either political puppets or pilots.

For the airline to be restored to profitability unpopular measures had to be introduced so as to reduce costs. Political puppets would be unaware of this necessity as most of them are unfamiliar with the strategies employed within this particular field. However, it is highly likely that pilots would be aware of the necessity of these measures, as they are familiar with the working conditions of their colleagues who  fly for low cost airlines or other legacy carriers which previously undertook these measures. Without doubt the pilots would ignore these harsh measures in order to preserve their perks and benefits.

A positive outcome from the work of this task force is that they have concluded that Jat Airways needs to reduce its workforce by at least a half. Though we can partially give them credit for their conclusion, one should not have high expectations as even politicians have made similar statements in the past. At this point it has become quite clear that we should not expect any fundamental changes within the airline as nothing seems to have changed from the previous times when ‘experts’ were called in to save the day.

Another positive outcome from this whole story is that these ‘experts’ have agreed to put forward a fleet renewal plan. However, a country like Serbia, which seems to be determined to join the European Union, has failed to embrace the notion of transparency. The whole process has been cloaked in mystery and kept away from the public eye. Only vague information has been leaked to the public revealing absolutely nothing.

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So what is the actual problem?

There are two major chronic problems with Jat Airways which will will continue to cripple it in the future. The first is the very organization of the airline, while the second is, once again, its fleet.

The airline plans on reducing its workforce by almost 50%, which should reduce its losses, but will not solve its long-term problems.

So what are these long-term problems Jat is facing? The first is that the carrier needs to decide what kind of market it wants to serve. Will it aim at catering for the needs of the point to point travellers or will it attempt to transform its Belgrade hub into a true Balkan crossroad? Until now, the abrupt liberalization of the Serbian market and the failure of various governments to prepare the national carrier for the transitional shock have forced the national carrier to mutate into some sort of a hybrid carrier which is stuck between two worlds.

Jat tries to compete with low cost carriers (most notably Wizz Air) by offering competitive fares with an uncompetitive cost structure. Though this might have a positive impact on the average load factor, it has the exact opposite impact on the airline’s finances. Without the much needed autonomy, the airline was (and still is) unable to take the adequate measures which only increased its losses and its debt.

Government officials stated on numerous occasions that they have no intent to turn Jat Airways into a low cost carrier. This means that Jat Airways has to keep its level of service equal to that offered by legacy carriers but at the same time it has to have a relatively low cost structure which will enable it to compete against the low cost carriers.

Though this is relatively difficult to achieve it is far from being impossible. The most important thing for Jat Airways to do is to revise its regional network by taking into consideration the state of its fleet and what it can do with it.

Its regional network will not only cater for the needs of the point to point passengers but it should be organized in such a way that it allows onward connections in Belgrade through the creation of several waves of departures.

The Balkan Peninsula is very competitive in terms of the number of carriers which are based there. Therefore Jat must optimize its performance within its regional network. First step would be to designate its regional zone as the one that stretches within a 500 nautical mile (nm) radius from its base at Belgrade airport. When competing with the Dash-8, on flights within this area, the Atr is incomparably more profitable. Problems arise on flights that exceed this distance as the Atr is simply not built for similar missions. Beyond the 500 nm radius the speed of the Dash becomes its biggest attribute while at the same time its more comfortable cabin improves the overall passenger experience.

Once the radius and the equipment have been defined, Jat needs to evaluate all possible means on how to offer competitive fares and still make a profit.

The simplest solution would be to divide its fleet into a mainline division and a regional one. The regional one would be comprised of Atrs where both the flight deck and cabin crew would sign separate contracts which would be similar to those used by (ultra?) low cost carriers. Though these contracts might be unattractive for the employees (when compared to the present) they need to enable the airline to engage in price wars so as to beat its competition – especially when facing airlines from its surrounding region which will most likely try to attract the same passengers as Jat. For example, on flights from Belgrade to Montenegro Jat currently needs at least €90 per passenger in order to break even. Its competition, Montenegro Airlines, operates a mixture of Embraer and Fokker jets which are much less efficient on such a short flight. By restructuring the airline and by separating the regional from the mainline fleet, Jat will be able to lower its fares to about €40/50 and still make a profit. This would eventually hurt Montenegro Airlines who will be forced into a pricing war it cannot win. This regional branch could either be a subdivision of the national carrier or a totally new airline which would take over all regional routes from Jat leaving it to operate from Belgrade to all destinations located outside the domestic sphere. The latter solution might be a more favourable one so that neither one of the two companies drains the other financially. It is always better to have two independent carriers operating within their own respective markets.

Though this light cost structure might encourage the management of the airline to expand rapidly, it is wiser to preserve a more conservative approach and expand within regional markets which have a considerable point to point traffic. This means that routes such as Podgorica, Tivat, Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Skopje, Thessaloniki, Ohrid, Dubrovnik and Pula should be considered as primary destinations which should be operated at least daily. Secondary cities such as Sofia, Banja Luka, Varna or Bucharest should be launched three times per week and special attention should be dedicated to these markets so as to develop point to point traffic which should act as a safety net once a more aggressive approach is taken when connections are added to the business equation.

Road and rail transport throughout the Balkans is bad, while its future improvement will be made difficult by the mountainous terrain. Jat Airways needs to use this to its advantage and attract passengers who would otherwise take a bus or train to reach any destination within this region.

Building a network to feed the flights of the mainline division is not enough; the airline needs to find its own market which will be served between the mainline waves of departures. In my opinion the airline should propose a new project entitled ‘Belgrade, a Balkan crossroad’ where it would provide connections for intra-Balkan flights. This programme could make certain routes profitable that otherwise would not be so. A good example of this is the flight from Belgrade to Zagreb. Due to good road infrastructure between the two cities most people opt to travel by car or bus. However, by establishing this route in the post-reorganization period it could feed the mainline’s waves of departures but more importantly it could also offer connections to the regional flights out of Belgrade. Just before the crisis there were roughly 20 passengers flying between Zagreb and Bucharest. Since this route would not be profitable for either Croatia Airlines or Tarom people travelling between the two cities have to either travel by road (which requires crossing several borders) or fly via an alternative hub. If Jat could manage to capture this market (and due to its geographical location it could), it would mean that on a daily basis it could fill 30% of its Zagreb flight with passengers connecting onwards to Bucharest.

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In order for this plan to be successful, careful planning and a light cost structure would need to be set in place. Fleet commonality is paramount hence the reason the fleet should be comprised of Atr 72-500s.

This is naturally a simplified explanation of what is needed for Jat to have even a remote chance of surviving. This is why the work done by the so-called experts should be disregarded since they will only reduce the negative effects but will not solve the actual problem.

If the restructuring plan proposed by the task group does take place then Jat will have a young fleet of regional aircraft, but at the same time this fleet will be operated by an expensive crew (and a generally expensive cost structure). Therefore the problems faced by the airline will simply persist under another guise. At this point the carrier will be left with two choices: either to reduce or to increase its fares.  The first option will attract more passengers, which should work, but at the same it will make the airline bleed money; or the latter choice resulting in increasing its fares beyond rational levels, serving only to tarnish its image among the travelling public. This second choice would  create the perception that, no matter what, Jat Airways will always be the most expensive option.

The fact that this group of ‘experts’ have yet to propose fundamental changes within the airline only goes to prove that they lack the basic knowledge of the aviation business.

 

To be continued…

Belgrade, a Yugoslav hub.

 

It is a common Balkan phenomenon for one to come across a speech by an airline or airport official stating that the institution they work for will become a regional leader.

However what these people tend not to do is specify which region we are talking about. Is it the region of that particular city? Is it the country itself? The Balkans? South-East Europe? The whole of Europe?

 

In today’s thread all the Balkan comparisons will exclude Athens and Istanbul as they are in a completely different league when compared to all other Balkan airports.

In the region of ex-Yugoslavia it is no secret that Belgrade has the greatest potential to become a regional leader. This is not my nationalism speaking, nor is it wishful thinking but it’s simple common sense backed by solid facts.

Naturally, the growing economy and the developing tourism industry are fuelling passenger demand. However, these are only contributing factors required to transform Belgrade into a regional leader.

For an airport to become a regional leader it needs to have a strong local carrier. In the case of Belgrade, the lack of a strong domestic carrier is standing between the airport and regional dominance. Jat Airways is a crippled, senile airline currently operating by default.

Jat’s so called regional network includes three cities (Skopje, Sarajevo and Podgorica) whose flights are timed to offer connections during early morning departures.

What Jat failed to think about is how passengers will arrive at their final destination without spending over 7 hours waiting at Belgrade airport. Recently the airline started offering afternoon flights between Belgrade and Skopje, but the only problem with this is that once in Belgrade passengers have nowhere to connect to besides Dubai (via Larnaca), a schedule which

operates only 4 times weekly.

The airline’s incompetence goes so far that they are unable to offer daily flights to major hubs around Europe. Recently both Dusseldorf and Athens have been upgraded to daily services. Dusseldorf is perfectly timed for connections via Belgrade, whereas Athens leaves roughly one hour before the arrival of the regional flights (that is if we exclude the random afternoon frequencies).

 

Loads to Dusseldorf are decent whereas Athens records catastrophic loads, usually below 50%. Maybe it’s time Jat understood that one of the main reasons for a regional network and feeder flights is not to make the route map pretty but rather to fill their outward flights with passengers from the region.

 

However, today I am not going to speak about the importance of feeder flights in general, but rather how they could play an important role in giving Belgrade a clear advantage over other cities in the region.

The key to Belgrade’s success is in the origin and destination (O&D) market. The O&D market is made up of passengers travelling between points A and B, that is they are not using Belgrade as a connecting airport.

 

With a regional network in place the newly launched flights departing Belgrade would be fed by the O & D market, thus guaranteeing satisfactory load factor

 

For example, when Malev introduced flights to the Yugoslav region, they had to invest a lot of money in advertising in order to secure decent loads and to attract connecting passengers to Budapest. Jat would not need such a large investment in this region as the brand is already known. What Jat needs is to reinstate services to Yugoslav cities. It was a good start when they reintroduced Dubrovnik as this was once one of the most important destinations for JAT (Yugoslav Air Transport).

There is another problem at this point. Since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the younger generation has no sentimental link to the cities on the Adriatic coast. For a lot of young people Dubrovnik is just another city in Europe trying to attract Serbs to spend their money there. On the other hand, for the older generation, Dubrovnik is more than just a city, it is a reminder of better days way back when…..! The O&D market is shrinking every year and Jat should act before all is lost.

This is something Jat needs to understand when entering these markets. We are no longer living in the heyday of Yugoslavia. The market has both changed and shrunk since then.

The best example is this summer season; even if there are 2 weekly frequencies between Belgrade and Dubrovnik, the loads are still weak. This summer Greece and Turkey remain as top destinations for holidaymakers.

 

Yugoslav expansion should be carried out carefully and with thorough prior analysis; most importantly this expansion should concentrate on offering connections via Belgrade. Numerous tourist destinations have become cash cows for a lot of airlines, the best examples being Larnaca and Malta.

I believe that this new expansion should be undertaken by people who had no connection to the old JAT as emotions are something that have no place in this new business environment. Today these destinations are simply on a par with certain other coastal cities outside the Yugoslav region, Thessaloniki or Venice for example.

 

Recently Lufthansa announced that their European network is losing money and that they need to do something in order to bring it back to profitability.

Interestingly, airlines such as British Airways, Air France and KLM have never made similar statements. This is because all these airlines operate out of hubs that have considerable O&D markets. By relying on this O&D they can always expect a certain number of passengers on their flights, meaning that they do not need to drop their fares in order to attract passengers.

Some airlines that are facing similar problems to Lufthansa are those that developed their hubs in places with a small O&D market (relative to their operations). These artificially created hubs are dangerous places and need extra caution when planning future business steps. Another European airline that has tried to recreate Lufthansa’s success is Latvia’s national carrier, airBaltic. Currently the airline is battling debt and may face closure. This is because such airlines attract passengers with low fares that cannot sustain their route network.

Within the region Slovenia’s Adria tried to create its own its own hub without a substantial O & D market which resulted in the airline owing €100,000,000

That is why Jat Airways should feel blessed that it can still rely on its O&D market to sustain its regional and European expansion.