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…

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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.