Balkan Unity. Thank you, but no thank you…

Recently there was much talk related to a creation of a single Yugoslav airline. Many prophesised that this was the only way these airlines could compete and thrive in the modern-day aviation business. While these self-proclaimed experts spread their ‘wisdom’, a relatively small group of people, with some sort of knowledge in aviation, laughed knowing that this would never occur.
Though many would argue that this would fail because of politics, the reality is very different. This project would fail because it is not sustainable, just as the nation of Yugoslavia wasn’t.

In mid-April CAPA published a rather superficial analysis on this proposal, not presenting its readers with the challenges beyond those from the world of politics. A month later the Economist reinvented the wheel by publishing the paraphrased mediocrity calling upon the Western Balkans to commit the same mistake they did roughly a century ago.

Today’s post will be based on the article published in the Economist since it has a wider readership, and is generally more influential than CAPA.

There is little concrete correlation between the title of the article and its content. By reading the title one would assume that there is a pan-Balkan move to unify the airlines into a single larger one. This is not the case,- unless, of course, the author believes that the ex-Yugoslav region is all that matters in the Balkans? The article talks of a meeting between the representatives of four ailing carriers meeting in Montenegro to discuss what they could do in order to fight the arrival of lowcost airlines into their home markets. As expected no concrete decision was taken.

However, the author of the article manages to contradict himself from the very start. In his first sentence he makes a bold statement that all eastern European airlines are sick. Within the same paragraph the author states: ‘Most East European airlines are losing money’. At this point one needs to ask if, according to the author, most of these Eastern carriers are sick, but not all of them are losing money, then what characterizes these profitable carriers as sick? Could it be that the author did not bother to look at the state of several carriers such as Aeroflot, Transaero, Travel Service, LOT Polish Airlines, Wizz Air, Blue Air…?
All of these carriers are far from being ‘sick’, yet they are all based in Eastern Europe.
In addition to attempting to create a false perception of reality in order to support his argument, the author forgot to mention that Eastern European airlines are not the only victims of bad management and the World Economic Crisis. Numerous airlines in the West are struggling just as much as these Eastern ones are. Even long established carriers such as Air France had reported tremendous losses, SN Brussels did the same, while Lufthansa had come forward with a statement that its short-haul operations are not profitable, echoed in a statement by Finnair. Even beyond the borders of the European continent the same trend can be noticed. JAL of Japan has been struggling financially for years now; Qantas has just reported a 90% slump in its profits while American Airlines is currently undergoing Chapter 11 restructuring. Then again, it is worth mentioning the major recipient of government subsidies, Air Canada, which would not be able to survive had it not been for their government bailing them out on numerous occasions. In addition to bailing them out, the Canadian government had blocked numerous Middle Eastern carriers from establishing flights based on demand instead of restrictive bilateral agreements. All in all, civil aviation business is suffering on a global scale; Eastern Europe is just one part of this phenomenon.
It is true that Eastern European airlines are suffering from rising competition from lowcost carriers, but once again, this development is not exclusive to this part of the world, it is a global trend.

The last sentence of the first paragraph should completely discredit the author as it portrays his lack of knowledge when it comes to civil aviation. His mention of Malév’s bankruptcy is completely taken out of context here. Malév’s unfortunate demise did not come as a result of a classic bankruptcy, but rather as a result of bad and inconsistent policies by the CEOs. The final nail in Malév’s coffin came during the tenure of the current CEO of Wizz Air, Tomasz Váradi, who had signed the airline’s fleet renewal. The agreement had been so unfavorable to the Hungarian carrier that it could never make a profit due to additional costs included in the leasing contract. On top of these additional expenses the airline had to battle with weak economic performance of its key markets and the rising cost of fuel. The same man who inked the detrimental fleet renewal was the one to report the case of Malév to the European Commission.
The European Commission clearly breached its own regulation when it claimed that the airline must pay back the subsidies it had received from the Hungarian government. Once the news reached Budapest, the Hungarian government decided that it could no longer finance Malév’s survival and so it decided to shut down the airline. Had the fleet renewal been done properly Malév would have never faced liquidation.

To get back to the topic in hand, I would like to present the key problem to the establishment of this new airline: the hub.
Though each country would still maintain a certain number of routes, there should be one dominant airport from where most of the flights would originate and where most of the regional flights would feed the routes which are not sustainable from other airports. Naturally it would make sense for that airport to be based either in Belgrade or Zagreb. Belgrade which is currently seeing impressive passenger growth and handles more passengers and airlines on a yearly base than Zagreb would be the obvious choice. Not to mention that Belgrade currently has better infrastructure which could be used by this new airline.
However, the million dollar question is: are the Croats are ready to accept this? If we judge by the statement at the end of the Economist’s article where Croatia’s minister of transport says that unless Croatia Airlines revives it should merge with Adria, then we can assume we got the answer to our question. A merger with smaller Adria would mean that Croatia Airlines and Zagreb would become the dominant players. This would not be possible if Belgrade and Jat were added to the equation.

Another major challenge for these airlines is in their fleet structure. Adria’s fleet is the one to pose the greatest problem in creating a new airline. They have 6 CRJ200 aircraft which are highly uneconomical for the modern day aviation business.
For example, a CRJ200 consumes 1.200 kg/h of fuel to carry 50 passengers, while Montenegro Airlines’ ageing Fokker carry double the amount of passengers but consume just 100 kg/h more fuel. This only goes to prove that 6 out of 13 aircraft in Adria’s fleet are bleeding money, a trend which should be reversed through the establishment of a single Yugoslav airline. By pursuing a merger in the current environment, an airline would be created with a fleet consisting of: Boeing B737-300s, a Boeing B737-200, Atr-72s, Fokker 100s, Embraer E195s, Airbus A319s, Airbus A320s, CRJ200s, CRJ900s and Dash-8s. Optimal fleet structure for an airline serving Yugoslavia should be made up of Airbus A319s, A320s and Dash-8s.

The most logical step would be to pursue a merger between Adria and Croatia Airlines, their core fleet is similar as both airlines operate Airbus aircraft. This means that there would be no additional cost to set up maintenance facilities or to provide the employees with additional training. If Adria were to introduce Dash-8 aircraft, their maintenance could be done in Zagreb thus lowering operational costs.
Montenegro Airlines operates out of a small, and extremely seasonal market, so its fate would be dictated by the bigger airlines.

If Adria, Croatia Airlines and Montenegro Airlines were to pursue a merger, should Jat Airways follow suit? Currently the airline operates a fleet of 14 aircraft, 10 Boeing B737-300s and 4 regional turboprop Atr-72 aircraft.
If they were to join this new venture they would have to consider replacing their Boeing fleet with Airbus aircraft in order to create synergy with other carriers within the alliance. This would bring about a new additional problem. The reason why all these airlines are considering unifying is because they lack the financial means to sustain their current operations. This only leads one to conclude that these airlines, even after unifying, could not afford to finance Jat’s transition from an all Boeing to an all Airbus fleet. As the carrier serving the biggest Yugoslav market it would require more than a few aircraft which could be transferred from Adria or Croatia Airlines. In addition to this, additional training of its personnel would increase the costs on top of introducing additional maintenance facilities at Belgrade airport. All in all, the cost of including Jat Airways in this project would cost more than they can afford.

The fact that Jat Airways is not a natural partner for this ex-Yugoslav alliance does not mean it is a lost cause, quite the opposite. This should make the management of Jat Airways realize that they are pursuing cooperation with the wrong airlines. Their future cooperation should be with Serbia’s traditional ally, Romania. Romania’s national carrier Tarom has a similar fleet structure to that of Jat. 18 of their 24 aircraft are directly compatible with Jat’s fleet.
Tarom operates both old and new generation Boeing B737 series, as well as 9 turbo-prop regional aircraft. This means that Jat’s natural partner is not to be found in the west but rather to the east.

Apart from the fleet commonality, both airlines complement each other. Tarom’s strength is in certain western European markets and the Middle East, while its services to Scandinavia, ex-Yugoslavia and Russia are limited to non-existent. Jat Airways is in the complete opposite situation: it has a decent network across Scandinavia and the ex-Yugoslav region, while its service to Moscow was reinforced with an additional three frequencies at the beginning of this summer season. On a weekly basis Jat offers a total of 17 flights between the two cities, 10 on its own metal while the other 7 are offered through a codeshare agreement with Aeroflot.

For Jat, closer cooperation with Tarom is far better than any proposal coming from the ex-Yugoslav capitals.
Yugoslav aviation is in a state of total chaos. Adria which has managed to accumulate over €150 million debt is constantly failing to make itself efficient when facing competition. On top if all, the recent announcement by Wizz Air that it will be launching flights to Ljubljana should result in this bad situation becoming worse for the Slovenian national carrier. With 6 highly inefficient aircraft in its fleet they will not be able to launch a price war against Wizz Air. I would like to point out that when I mention a price war I am referring to lowering the prices but at the same time not bleeding money. This can be achieved through efficient fleet and a competitive cost structure, neither of which is present in Adria.

On the other hand we have Croatia Airlines which, despite a modern Airbus fleet, 6 Dash-8 aircraft and a Star Alliance membership, manages to fail. Recently it even threatened the management of Zagreb airport that it would axe flights to key destinations if they allow, or encourage, lowcost airlines to launch flights to the Croatian capital. So not only are they discouraging the management from doing their job, thus distorting the ideal of free market, but at the same time they are also encouraging protectionism, which is a sign of a management which has failed to modernize and embrace modern business trends. A bad relationship with its staff has led to numerous strikes while the airline lacks a clear strategy when it comes to its future.
I will be audacious enough to compare Croatia Airlines and British Airways. I will do so not because they are similar airlines, or because they are of the same quality, but because they are both located in countries with similar aviation geography. This means that both airlines operate out of countries with numerous airports, making it difficult to establish domination over the market. Several years ago British Airways had decided to concentrate its operations in London by terminating international flights from secondary airports and establishing a domestic network. Croatia Airlines has not done so, and the airline still insists on offering flights from Zagreb to Europe via its coastal cities. This is only making them less competitive internationally. The icing on the cake was when the Croatian government wanted to appoint the new CEO who was previously accused of harassment by one of the female employees. Once again, this goes to prove the utter failure of their management.

Despite their fallacies, the biggest problem for both Croatia Airlines and Adria is that their master, Lufthansa, relies on these airlines to feed its growing network rather than to become self-sustainable companies. Then again, Lufthansa’s faith in Croatia Airlines might be dwindling as they have decided to launch their own flights from Berlin to Zagreb.

The other two airlines in the region, Montenegro Airlines and B&H Airlines, are a joke and will survive only as long as they receive subsidies from their respective governments. The Serbian government should consider abandoning altogether this proposal as Yugoslav airlines are willing to work with Jat Airways only now when they are in a desperate position. We all remember why Jat Airways was forced to terminate its flights to Dubrovnik back in 2009, or who was behind Master Airways (and why it closed down), or why Jat Airways did a favour to Montenegro Airlines by allowing them to take over most of the passengers between Montenegro and Belgrade some years ago…! Additionally the article fails to point out what would happen with the south Serbian province of Kosovo whose independence is not recognized by either Serbia or Bosnia.

The best part of the article, which only goes to prove how little the author knows about civil aviation, is when he calls upon the ex-Yugoslav airlines to unite in the same manner as SAS did. The article fails to state which city should act as the central hub, as does Copenhagen in the case of SAS.
What the author fails to realize (one of many things I fear) is that SAS is currently struggling to survive due to a heavy cost structure, a difficult relationship with the unions, a large share of its fleet being ineffective and old, plummeting shares in the last five years, and it is currently under attacked from lowcosts such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and Flybe Scandinavia…

Now that I think of it, JAT’s offspring are already in the same situation as SAS. All that is needed is for them to unite under one common brand.

They should resurrect the Air Yugoslavia brand, after all this experiment will have as much success as that country did.

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Politically Appointed Disasters

In Serbia politics and aviation are closely interwoven. In a 21st century European business environment that is unacceptable, because modern day Europe is based on the Principles of Enlightenment. In many regards one can assume that this revolutionary process has bypassed Serbia; the civil aviation sector being just one of many examples which could be used to prove the point.

So what new development will the recently held Serbian elections bring to Jat Airways and the civil aviation sector in the country? Will there be any changes?
If the party of the ex-president of Serbia forms the ruling coalition then we can assume that Jat Airways will fall under their jurisdiction. This could be seen as very bad news, simply because over the course of the past 4 years all we have heard are empty promises, both in relation to civil aviation and to the wellbeing of the republic. As always, during the pre-election circus new rumours surfaced that Jat Airways is in the market for a lease of 2 Boeings B737-800s.
We see a clear shift from the traditional rhetoric of Jat Airways looking for the smaller variant, Boeing B737-700.

The real question at this point is not if Jat Airways needs the Boeing B737-800s, but what could they do with the two aircraft once they are delivered.
The vast majority of people tend to forget that Jat Airways’ biggest issue is not its ageing fleet; it is actually their politically appointed management which has no real knowledge of the aviation business. This is best portrayed by their failure to follow the latest trends within this highly competitive industry. Some of these include their utter failure to create and effectively introduce a loyalty programme, provide their customers with a consistent flight schedule across their network, implement effective customer service and most importantly, create a Jat Airways brand.

The last point is the most relevant. Though Belgrade airport reminds me of an abandoned outpost somewhere in Africa, I have to admit that the airport is served by a wide variety of airlines, providing more than affordable fares to pretty much any part of the world. Though this comes as good news for people planning on travelling to/from Serbia, it does not come as good news for Jat Airways.
The airline was forced to battle with increased competition through the liberalization of the market without having been reformed and adapted to the new business trends. This means that Jat Airways found itself in a situation when it had to lower its fares, which resulted in an obvious decrease in revenue, while still maintaining a rather high cost structure. The failure of the Serbian government is best portrayed here when we see what crucial step was neglected in ensuring that the national carrier became competitive. By not doing so, they have only ensured that the carrier accumulates losses which need to be covered by the government at the end of each year. On average Jat loses €20 million per annum. This is one of many examples where Serbia blindly introduced EU legislation without preparing its market for the shock.

Jat Airways faces competition on all of its lucrative routes. Starting with the shortest, Vienna, which sees three carriers and up to 7 daily rotations. Jat Airways operates double daily flights on board their Atr-72 aircraft. Up until the liberalization of the market, both Jat Airways and Austrian Airlines enjoyed a duopoly on the route shamelessly charging people up to €200 for a return flight (the route is about one hour). With Niki entering the market things have dramatically changed. Both Austrian Airlines and Jat Airways have been forced to change their tactics in order to survive. Austrian Airlines have added new flights, with the additional departure at 05:15 offering the possibility of reaching any part of Europe via its hub in Vienna by 09:00. More recently it added a late afternoon flight out of Belgrade allowing for connections to the Middle East and beyond, but more importantly it has become more convenient to organize single day trips between the two cities, in order to attract business passengers. On the other hand, Niki launched their flights to Belgrade with 6 weekly rotations, which in a short period of time was increased to almost double daily. Not only have they increased the number of flights to Belgrade, they have also revised their schedule so as to offer more connections via Vienna. The initial schedule mostly catered for the needs of the so called origin and destination market, while the morning and evening scheduling of flights permit more convenient connections in Vienna.
Jat Airways had done absolutely nothing besides entering a price war with these two airlines, competing for the origin and destination market while relying on a humble number of connecting passengers from its rather limited regional network.

Vienna is just one of the few examples where Jat Airways’ failure to react has cost them dearly. Turkish Airlines is increasing their flights to Istanbul, Wizz Air has added additional flights to Malmo while Norwegian has launched their own flights from Copenhagen, and routes such as Amsterdam and London see competition from Wizz Air’s flights to Eindhoven and Luton.
It is also worth mentioning that Jat’s lack of adequate equipment has only speeded up the process of another airline launching flights from Dubai. This was done by flydubai which uses its own 189 seat B738 between the two cities. When the route was operated by Jat, it used a 125 seat B737-300 with a stop in Larnaca. The route saw roughly 70% load factor and was not a great money maker for the airline as it had to compete with other carriers from the region such as Turkish Airlines. The route to Belgrade is considered a success for flydubai with the airline currently operating 5 weekly rotations between the two cities.
This can only mean that Jat’s outdated management is not only driving the airline to its eventual demise, but at the same time it is restricting the normal development of the market. Had the airline leased its B737-700, as it stated some time ago, they could have used it to operate the route to Dubai directly, thus reducing the chances of flydubai launching their own flights. However, their rather archaic product and the stop in Cyprus have made this route unattractive for passengers.
The same applies for Jat’s triangular routes such as those that are operated to Scandinavia or the one to Cyprus and Israel. Naturally, Jat can afford to operate its triangular route in the middle of the night to Cyprus and Israel because it sees no competition in that region. At the same time, they are charging exuberant fares with the cheapest flight to Larnaca starting at €270 (2h: 40 mins.). Attitudes such as these have driven customers away and created a negative perception of Jat among the flying public.
It was exactly because of such policies and such perception that the arrival of competition from Scandinavia was more than welcome.

The management of Jat Airways needs to understand that they are not running JAT Yugoslav Airlines any longer. Operating frequencies are no longer arranged through bilateral agreements and in the contemporary aviation business, profit is everything. On top of it all, the fact that they have been recording passenger growth is only because they introduced numerous ticket sales.
The greatest challenge for any new management would be to restore trust in Jat among the flying public. This can only be done through a strong brand which would make people want to fly with them, even when they are not the cheapest option. Today, the vast majority of passengers would only opt to use Jat if it is cheaper than its competition. Through these numerous sales, that goal was achieved. Unfortunately the management of the company does not see why the airline is failing to make money, though its passenger numbers are up. Probably the term ‘cost structure’ is foreign to them and they have no clue what its relation is to Jat. Future management will keep on failing as long as they are appointed by the government, as is the case with the present CEO.

The current fleet structure is good, in other words a regional turboprop and a medium sized jet aircraft. Unfortunately the airline has never managed to replace its DC-9 aircraft which had the capacity of roughly 100 passengers. This is something that is killing the airline as the Atrs are too small and too slow to operate some of the routes, while the B737s are too big and too inefficient. Some of the best examples of routes which require a regional medium-size aircraft (100 to 110 seats) are destinations such as Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Larnaca and Athens. By introducing these aircraft the airline will be able to reduce capacity and increase frequency. Through such a move it will be able to build departure waves out of Belgrade and thus facilitate the introduction of regional flights to feed its network out of Belgrade.
By using its Atr fleet, which is very fuel efficient, it will be able to reduce the damage of constant fluctuations of fuel prices. These fluctuations are one of the biggest problems for the aviation sector today. With these aircraft this problem can be overcome and so transform Jat Airways into a much more competitive player in the region.
Though Jat currently operates 4 of these aircraft, their scheduling is abysmal with connecting passengers having to spend hours waiting in Belgrade. This only goes to prove that running an airline requires more than good political connections; it requires in-depth knowledge of all aspects of the business.

Both Jat Airways and Belgrade international airport are run by politically appointed people. Naturally, Belgrade airport is in a better position as it is currently the only real international airport in the country. Other airports in Serbia cannot compare in terms of destinations offered, frequencies or infrastructure.
Their current CEO was appointed thanks to his wife’s friendship with the wife of the ex-health minister who offered him a choice between a position at the university or the position of deputy-CEO of Belgrade airport. After the ‘Kristo scandal’, current CEO Velimir Radosavljevic was offered the position during a lunch meeting with Mr Dinkic and Mr Mrkonjic.
A similar story occurred with the appointment of the current CEO of Jat Airways, Mr Ognjenovic. His aunt was one of the founding members of the party of the previous president of Serbia.

As long as the societal riff raff gets promoted to key positions in the country, young and competent Serbs will have no chance of finding adequate employment opportunities in their own country. This is only encouraging the already serious problem of ‘brain drain’.

Could the saying, birds of a feather flock together, indicate that people such as the CEOs of Belgrade airport and Jat Airways are actually no different than those who have appointed them?
It all goes to show that ‘It’s who you know, not what you know’!

Who dominates in Belgrade?

 

Since I started writing this blog I have spent a lot of time looking at the flaws of Serbia’s national carrier, Jat Airways. So today, my focus will be less on Jat and more on the general situation at Belgrade airport.

 

The summer season kicked off with two extremely strong weeks whereby Belgrade airport saw passenger numbers soar by 27%! At the end of the month the numbers were slightly more modest with a 17% rise. These numbers were more than impressive, but could we say that they are surprising? Belgrade, just like the rest of Serbia was cast into darkness and seclusion by much  of the world throughout the 90s. The decade was one of the darkest periods in the history of Serbian aviation. One could even argue that it was darker than the period of the Second World War when Aeroput just like other European airlines was grounded. On the other hand the 90s were a very successful period for numerous airlines around the world, but not for Jat.

The 90s have come and gone and now it’s time for both Jat Airways and the airport to enjoy a well-deserved period of prosperity. Unfortunately Jat has been unable to use this to its own advantage but on the other hand the airport has been doing very well indeed..

But what is happening with the other carriers? In 2011 Belgrade airport saw its passenger numbers rise by roughly 20%. No matter how impressive these results are we cannot say that all airlines present in Serbia managed to turn Belgrade into a success story.

Some traditional airlines in Belgrade such as Austrian Airlines or Swiss managed to reinforce their already strong presence in Belgrade. Others like CSA or Malév have been failing to cope with the growing competition in the market. Finally some underdogs like Tarom or airBaltic managed to do wonders and consolidate their position at the airport.

Both Tarom and Malév launched flights to Belgrade in December 2009. Tarom did this in a modest manner by using their regional turboprop aircraft operating the route three times per week. On the other hand Malév launched Belgrade with a massive ticket sale and by operating the inaugural flight with their B737-700 carrying airport officials and journalists onboard.

With the resumption of the normal fare structure Malév’s glory started to fade as passenger numbers began to shrink. The airline was forced to reduce both frequencies and capacity on the route. On the other hand Tarom has been adding frequencies, bringing the total to 5 during the 2011 summer season,and their load factor was more than impressive at 71%.

For the sake of simplicity I have divided the airlines into their alliances, whereas those that do not belong to any have been simply tagged ‘the non-aligned’.

As June is the introductory month of the summer rush I have taken the results of Belgrade airport and analyzed them in greater detail.

First stop is a simple insight into the market share of the four players at Belgrade:
70% of June traffic was carried by airlines which are not part of any alliance. A large percentage of the market is held by Jat Airways and Montenegro Airlines: naturally Jat as the national carrier of the republic, and Montenegro thanks to the large demand between the two countries.

Right behind the non-aligned bunch is Star Alliance with 22% of the market. Airlines that dominate within this alliance are Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian and Spanair. Of these only Lufthansa saw a slight decrease in passenger numbers when compared to last year. However, their numbers are so impressive that even such a small decrease still puts them way ahead of their fellow Star members.

On the other hand Swiss almost doubled its passenger numbers which climbed from 8,728 in 2010 to 13,137 in 2011. This sharp increase was mostly the result of the additional frequencies from Zurich which were introduced in order to offer greater connecting possibilities to North America.

One of the true winners of this alliance has to be Austrian Airlines. They are the only airline from the Star Alliance family to see fierce competition on the route they operate out of Belgrade. In addition to good old Jat, the airline faces the Austrian no-frills airline, Niki. To make things even worse Niki announced the revision of their Belgrade operation which, among other things, includes an additional 5 frequencies during the winter season. With these new flights not only will Niki steal the O&D passengers from Austrian but will start competing for the transit passengers. Unlike Jat Airways, Niki uses their new Embraer E190 jet on the route; not to mention that soon they will become a member of the oneworld airline alliance. By becoming a member of oneworld they will assist Malév in filling the void left by British Airways’ withdrawal from Belgrade. No matter how fierce their competition is Austrian Airlines have managed to keep 51% of the market share between Belgrade and Vienna.

SkyTeam occupies the third position with 8% of the market. Top ranking airlines are Aeroflot, Alitalia, Air France and Czech Airlines. All SkyTeam members except CSA reported growth in June 2011. Most impressive growth came from Aeroflot whose numbers rose from 6,109 in June 2010 to 7,183 year on year. Another airline that managed to see healthy growth was Tarom whose numbers rose from 1,036 in June 2010 to 1,348 in 2011. CSA which had continuously failed to cope with the newly arrived competition suffered greatly and as a result was forced to cut Belgrade from 13 weekly flights to just 4!

Last, and unfortunately least, is the oneworld airline alliance with a pathetic 0,4% of the market! A major blow to oneworld passengers travelling to Belgrade was given last year when British Airways announced their withdrawal from the market prompted by the fact that Serbian citizens still require British visas in order to visit or transit the UK. This has proven to be the major disadvantage to British Airways which, unlike its competitors, could not attract mass transits to North America.

Today only Malév flies the oneworld flag to Belgrade. Unfortunately for them, their future in Belgrade seems uncertain. In June the airline managed to record an average load factor of only 47%, down from 50% same time last year. O&D market between Belgrade and Budapest is next to non-existent which means that Malév has to rely heavily on transit passengers. This puts Malév in a very difficult position and it’s a clear disadvantage when compared to the other carriers in Belgrade. Hopefully once Niki becomes a member of oneworld things will look up for the alliance’s situation in Belgrade.

If we take a closer look at the situation in the market between Belgrade and the Balkans things start to look interesting.

Below is the division of the Belgrade-Balkans market between Jat Airways and other carriers from the region.

In June 2010 the majority of the Belgrade-Balkans market was held by foreign carriers.

A year later this has changed with Jat Airways taking over the majority stake:

This change was probably due to the sharp rise in passenger numbers travelling between major areas of the peninsula. More specifically Jat saw a considerable rise in passenger numbers to destinations such as Istanbul, Athens, Tivat and Podgorica.

Athens remains as the only problematic destination since there isn’t enough demand for a daily B737-300 but it’s too far to be operated by an Atr.

In addition to the above mentioned destinations proving to be a success Jat has regained the monopoly on its Belgrade-Sarajevo route ever since Air B&H withdrew several months ago.

Routes to Croatia have been re-launched with Dubrovnik being the first city. During June Jat Airways managed to record a satisfactory load factor of 71%. Its competition on the route is Croatia Airlines which operates its brand new Dash-8 aircraft. Even if Croatia Airlines is a Star Alliance member and operates a more passenger friendly aircraft on the route, it has failed to attract more passengers. In June 2011 its load factor was only 40%. Both airlines operated equal number of flights between the two cities.

The overall situation in the Balkans is improving with every new season. Year on year passenger numbers between Belgrade and the Balkans have risen by 17%.

In June 2010 that figure stood at 60,559 whereas this year it is 70,678. More than half of these passengers travel between Belgrade and Montenegro. Year on year the number of passengers has risen by 15% (from 36,575 to 42,183).

So what conclusion can we draw from Jat’s positive passenger numbers? Since competition is very much present at the airport could we dare to assume that there is more faith and trust in the national airline of Serbia?

With these positive numbers the future doesn’t seem that grim for the 84 year old airline.

 

Atr vs Dash-8

Introducing a new model of aircraft into the fleet is never an easy task. Before doing so the airline needs to take into consideration numerous different challenges which it might face on the way. These different challenges vary according to the kind of model the airline plans on introducing. For example, numerous airlines that have introduced the A380 needed to make sure that both their home airport and destination airports were ready to handle them with the installation of, for example,  specialized gates and wider taxiways. When speaking of smaller aircraft, not necessarily regionals but, for example, members of the Boeing 737 family, challenges are usually smaller but not to be ignored.

 

The region of ex-Yugoslavia hosts a bunch of crippled airlines trying to become regional carriers without fully understanding what that means. The pack is led by Croatia Airlines which was the only airline to actually successfully replace a model in its fleet with a newer, more advanced one.

One could argue that Montenegro Airlines could make the cut but the fact that their market is far from liberated and that the airline has little competition doesn’t make it fair for us to put them in the same category.

Croatia Airlines’ replacement of their Atr-42 fleet with the Dash-8  was a smart move. Regarding their domestic market it made little difference as all flights are less than one hour. The main difference is that now they can use their fuel-efficient turboprops on the vast majority of European routes.

 

In Belgrade the decision on what to do with the ageing Atrs is not that easy. Jat doesn’t have the domestic market of Croatia, which means that for them it is far more important to define their business plan before making any rash decision regarding the fleet renewal.

One of the possibilities is to postpone the replacement of their B737-300 fleet and instead to concentrate on revising their regional network. With a reinforced regional network additional feed will be enabled in Belgrade and in such a way increase the average loadfactor on their mainline fleet.

 

As described in the previous post, there is a considerable origin and destination market between Belgrade and various areas of ex-Yugoslavia. However,  bus companies currently hold the monopoly by offering lower fares and multiple departure times.

In order to lure more passengers into flying to these destinations, Jat Airways will need to enter a price and comfort war against the bus companies. Most of the roads across this region are bad and travel times are usually very long, whereas they are reachable by air in less than an hour.

In order to be able to make a profit and still offer lower fares it would be advisable for Jat to create a subsidiary airline, similar to EuroLot in Poland.

Lot’s  subsidiary airline operates mostly on domestic flights using regional Atr aircraft. These aircraft are used both to feed Lot’s flights out of Warsaw and also to offer multiple daily departures to various Polish cities at a very low price.

Flights to Montenegro are popular due to the extremely bad condition of the road system making bus rides the equivalent of a ride to hell. That is why Jat should prioritize the resumption of the year round Dubrovnik service since not only is it difficult to access by road but it is also the Croatian city with the greatest potential.

 

By combining low prices with a strong marketing campaign Jat will succeed in stealing passengers from bus companies. With this campaign in place regional cities could be served several times per day, offering numerous connecting possibilities via Belgrade and at the same time giving flexibility to O&D passengers.

 

One main difference between Lot and Jat is that unlike Jat, Lot has a lot of Embraer jets which have enabled it to offer multiple flights per day to various European cities. Jat’s core fleet is made up of B737-300s with a total capacity of 125 seats making it difficult to offer several daily departures to various European cities.

 

This is where another problem arises: if Jat opts to enlarge its fleet of Atrs instead of introducing the Dash aircraft then it will be practically impossible for the airline to send them to key European routes outside the Balkans such as Rome, Milan, Zurich…

By introducing the Dash-8 aircraft they could add additional frequencies to these routes without dumping capacity on them. Double daily B737 would offer 250 seats whereas a daily B737 and Dash-8 would offer 193 seats.

 

The only problem with the Dash aircraft would be the lack of servicing facilities in Belgrade. Jat Thenika would have to be issued a certificate for servicing this model of aircraft.

Since it is not a secret that Jat needs a regional aircraft for longer thinner routes, which might be too long for the Dash, it would be wiser for them to spend more money in enabling Jat Tehnika to service these aircraft and to slowly start building their fleet around Boeings, Embraers and Dashes.

 

As always, Jat Airways needs a strategy that will enable it to reverse its falling market share in Belgrade. Unfortunately with the current management that will most definitely not happen.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

S-uper S-olution for J-at… SSJ 100 (Part 3)

Most people tend to associate Russian aviation with a high level of pollution, general lack of safety and efficiency. Naturally, the recent crash of the inefficient Tupolev Tu-134 didn’t help at all in changing this perception as news of the crash of the dated Soviet built aircraft travelled the world.

However, what could be said for the newest aircraft model from Russia, the Sukhoi Super Jet 100?

For quite some time now I have been advocating that the SSJ 100-75 model would have been the most suitable aircraft for Jat Airways. Naturally, this idea was received with scepticism, amidst claims that the best model would be the Embraer jet.

They were right, the Embraer family with its proven reliability and safety record would have been the best and safest aircraft for Jat. However, the E-jet is the most suitable aircraft for numerous airlines around the world which means that these aircraft are not easily found on the market.

By analysing the situation within the Serbian airline I noticed that on the vast majority of European routes they operate their Boeing B737-300, with an average load factor of 60%. Jat’s 737s are equipped with 125 seats which means that on average they have 70 passengers per flight.

The SSJ 100-75 accommodates around 78 passengers, making it the ideal candidate.

Naturally, when compared to the E-170 aircraft, its equivalent within the Embraer family, the SSJ appears to be even more impressive.

The only characteristic that is clearly superior with the E-170 over the SSJ is the range with full load. The E-jet has a range of 3,892kms whereas the SSJ has about 2,900kms. This fact however is irrelevant to Jat Airways as their longest flight on these models would be 2 hours and 30 minutes.

In addition to having a roomier cabin the SSJ has a greater maximum take-off weight (MTOW), beating the E-jet by 2,500 kilos. Other characteristics of these two models are more or less the same and they are not worth mentioning here.

If Jat was to order a brand new E-jet the waiting time would be calculated in years. As the SSJ is a new model, airlines are reluctant to place orders as they are waiting for airlines that have received them to give a final verdict.

At the Paris air show the SSJ secured an order for 8 aircraft from the Italian carrier Blue Panorama in addition to 10 orders from Indonesia. Just a couple of months previously the Mexican airline Interjet had placed an order for 15 aircraft with a generous seat pitch of 34.

The time is right for Jat to look into this model. Their 737 fleet is ineffective for their current network. For example, their daily flight to Athens is mostly served by the 737 and has recorded an average load factor of 41% in the period January-May.  If Jat had used the SSJ on the route it would have improved its average load factor to 78%, which would enable it to increase frequencies and offer more connecting possibilities to regional passengers.

Athens is just one among the numerous routes where the SSJ would be the perfect candidate. Other cities such as Berlin, Gothenburg, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Rome, for example, would have been the perfect candidates.

One airline which has managed to work wonders with regional aircraft is Poland’s Lot. With its core fleet made up of Embraer jets it covers the majority of European routes. The airline has understood that in today’s aviation world passengers are looking for frequency over capacity. However routes that demand higher capacity are served by Boeing 737 aircraft.

Even on its Warsaw-Belgrade-Warsaw route, the airline initially used its E-145 which was upgraded to an E-170 once the route matured. Lot’s average load factor to Belgrade in 2011 was around 60%.

One could say that Jat today is where Lot was several years ago. When Lot placed its order for the E-170 jet the Brazilian manufacturer was far from famous. Today some of the biggest airlines in the world rely on the E-jet to serve their regional routes. In Europe, Lufthansa has managed to revolutionize its regional market with the arrival of their Embraer jets.

Even on its Munich-Belgrade-Munich thrice daily flights the A319 (which was very common at that time) was replaced by the E-jets.

So should Jat recognize the potential of the SSJ 100-75 and place an early order? After all the feedback coming from the launch customer Armavia of Armenia has been nothing but positive. Below is a recent statement by an Armavia pilot:

“The aircraft demonstrates remarkable performance at operation. The flights go without any serious delays. All flights are made in automatic control mode at the altitude of 35000 – 39000ft. The speed is 0,78-0,8M. SSJ100 has got remarkable flight deck ergonomics and control features. It’s easy and comfortable to handle” stated Armavia SSJ100 Captain Aram Egoyan.

As always we have no choice but to sit and wait to see what happens in Jat. The airline is keen to order B737-700s as part of the fleet renewal, however there was no mention if the order is intended to add capacity or replace the old Boeings.

However, with its average load factor at around 60% the airline should seriously reconsider adding additional capacity to its network.

Even its most popular European routes do not manage to secure a load factor greater than 80%.

One hot summer

 

Belgrade airport is still reporting phenomenal results, a trend started with the lifting of Schengen visas for Serbian citizens in December 2009.

Last year the airport handled a total of 2,698,730 passengers which represents an increase of 13% when compared to the 2009 results.

 

As we approached 2011, many wondered if the airport would be able to maintain this amazing trend.

Since January the airport has been recording an average monthly growth of 20%! If this trend continues the airport will come extremely close to replacing Sofia as the third busiest airport in the region, behind Budapest and Bucharest.

With the summer season officially in place, the airport should be more than satisfied with the new frequencies announced by various airlines.

Additional frequencies will be available on routes to Istanbul’s main gateway, Ataturk airport. Turkish Airlines has requested an additional two frequencies which should complement their current daily flights. Once the flights receive government approval there will a total of 14 weekly frequencies between the two cities.

TK 1083 arr. BEG

1-3—- 18:20

TK 1084 dep. BEG

1-3—- 19:15

It will be interesting to follow the developments in the Serbian-Turkish market. In addition to Turkish Airlines, the Serbian national carrier operates this route 5 times per week.

Shortly before the crisis and the liberalization of the Serbian market, Turkish lowcost airline Pegasus was planning on opening up the Sabiha Gokcen-Belgrade route. The original plan was to operate the route twice per week using their B737-800 aircraft.

Currently Pegasus is expanding in the region with Bucharest being their newest destination. It remains to be seen what happens. There is always a possibility of higher frequencies from Turkish Airlines or Jat, or we could see Wizz Air inaugurating flights to Istanbul (probably Sabiha Gokcen airport) once they base their second aircraft in Belgrade. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see Pegasus back in Belgrade as they currently operate summer charter flights from Antalya.

Another recent announcement came from Belgrade’s northern neighbour. Malev has announced that from July 1st it will be adding an additional two frequencies to Belgrade.

In the first couple of months of operations in Belgrade, Malev recorded impressive results. Part of this success was due to the promotional campaign where passengers could purchase tickets for as little as €1! Very soon their Dash-8 aircraft became too small for their daily operations to Belgrade and their Boeing aircraft became a common sight at the airport.

This trend did not continue once the promotional campaign was over. There was a very sharp drop in passenger numbers and the airline was forced to reduce capacity from 68 seats to just over 30 per day. In time frequencies were reduced from daily to 4 times per week.

However, summer 2011 will see Malev operate daily flights until July 1st when the two additional flights will be added. These flights will spend the night in Belgrade with a very early departure in order to provide passengers with decent connections through Budapest.

MA 478 arr. BEG

-2–5– 00:40

MA 479 dep. BEG

-2–5– 04:55

With CSA’s possible withdrawal, Malev should be more than satisfied as passengers who previously used Prague as their transit airport can now connect via Budapest. It would be a great shame to see CSA leave the Serbian market since it has been present there since 1946.

One airline which has announced drastic changes to its Belgrade flights is the Austrian lowcost carrier Niki.

Until the start of the winter season (31.10) the airline will keep its current 6 flights per week. Since the inauguration of its flights Niki has aimed at the large Serbian diaspora living in Vienna. With its upcoming membership of the oneworld alliance the airline has revised its schedule in order to cater for the needs of business and connecting passengers.

VIE-BEG

arr. as HG 8026 at 07:15   12345–

arr. as HG 8028 at 20:00   12345-7

BEG-VIE

dep. as HG 8027 at 08:00  12345–

dep. as HG 8029 at 20:35  12345-7

Both Malev and Niki have remained as the only carriers from the oneworld alliance to offer direct flights to Belgrade from their hubs.

Several months ago British Airways axed Belgrade due to tough competition from Jat Airways and Wizz Air.

With the above mentioned changes Vienna will see up to 7 daily flights operated by three airlines. As of 31.10 departure times to Vienna from Belgrade will be as follows:

    05:15, 07:55, 08:00, 08:10, 15:15, 16:50, 20:35

This particular route is important for both Austrian Airlines and Niki. Vienna is one of the few destinations out of Belgrade where airlines have the opportunity to offer convenient connecting possibilities while relying on the considerable origin and destination market (Serbian diaspora).

While these two carriers fight it out with each other, Jat Airways maintains its double daily flight on the route. Jat mostly aims at the origin and destination market between the two countries. Even if their flights are perfectly timed to offer connections to several ex-Yugoslav cities my personal belief is that they will lose in the long run. Both Austrian Airlines and Niki have expressed strong interest in expanding in the ex-Yugoslav/Balkan market. Austrian Airlines is a very well established carrier in this region, whereas Niki has just begun its own expansion in the region. After launching Belgrade, Sofia and Bucharest the airline has recently announced plans to open direct links between Vienna and Skopje.

Jat’s failure to modernize will result in its demise. The more we see these Austrian carriers expand in the region the less passengers will opt to fly with Jat. Demand between Belgrade and other ex-Yugoslav cities (with the exception of Montenegro) is far from enough to sustain profitable flights. Jat’s daily frequency to the regional cities cannot compare with those offered by its neighbours such as Adria, Malev or even Croatia Airlines. If Jat is unable to compete with these airlines then how can they even think of fighting off airlines which are backed by Lufthansa and Air Berlin?

It’s a race against time for Jat and for it to preserve what is left of its past glory. It seems to me that recently they have adopted a different strategy, one that will see the airline concentrate on fighting off competition at its home base in Belgrade and therefore regain some of the lost O&D market. Some of the recent changes to their timetable include daily flights to Dusseldorf and Athens, a sixthweekly frequency to Istanbul (pending government approval) and an additional 4 frequencies will be added to Paris CDG.

Only time will tell if these changes will prove to be successful. We will have to wait until the end of summer season to know who is the real winner and who is the real loser in Belgrade.