A new era will today dawn for both Adria Airways and Aerodrome Maribor, with collaboration between the Slovenian flag-carrier and the Delavska hranilnica-owned airport resulting in a renewed presence for the airline in Maribor after a fifteen year hiatus that has brought a thrice-weekly service connecting Slovenia’s second city with London Southend. The route initially slated to operate until the end of September could see the service extended if preliminary ticket sales continue to exceed expectations, although, in its guise as a stalking horse to ascertain whether the confidence surrounding Maribor’s attempts to become a successful regional hub is justified, much will rest on how favourable this rebooted service is received in both England and Slovenia, the failure in 2007 of Ryanair’s short lived link between London Stansted and Maribor was undoubtedly a setback from which the then owners of Edvard Rusjan Airport failed to overcome.

Since the trade union-backed savings bank Delavska hranilnica acquired Maribor’s airport in 2014 there have been numerous unsubstantiated rumours regarding future routes connecting Slovenia’s east with a raft of diverse cities, Berlin, Barcelona, Baku and unnamed Russian cities to name a few. To an outsider such as myself it has been a longstanding mystery why such a fit for purpose, modern facility has remained almost dormant in recent times, Maribor’s trade being restricted to freight traffic and the occasional seasonal charter. With spare capacity of which its neighbouring rivals can only dream, there is a very real opportunity for Maribor to become a successful regional hub and a viable alternative to Ljubljana for Adria to base several of its aircraft in, taking advantage of more favourable landing charges than the rumoured spike in fees levied on existing and prospective airlines by Fraport, the German owner/operator of Ljubljana’s Brnik-based aerodrome. Maribor’s eastern isolation, for so long seen as a drawback might be an accident of birth but its geographic proximity to several neighbouring countries potentially enables it to draw passengers from a wider market, rather than relying on a narrow Slovenian demographic which would always be insufficient in number to keep the airport as a viable, ongoing concern.

It is then from passengers from outside Slovenia’s borders that Delavska will pin their hopes, the citizens of Hungary, Croatia and Austria’s Carinthia province being seen as the target markets most likely to sustain the long-term future of the airport, assuming an attractive array of routes can be secured to entice cross-border patronage. Potential links with Azerbaijan and Russia have continued to gain oxygen, mainly due to the profusion of spa resorts in the east of Slovenia, facilities that are of great interest to tourists from the former Soviet Union. Concern though will persist that such routes are idealistic rather than realistic should the current trend of sharp drops in visitors from Russia persist, the Adria service connecting Ljubljana with Sheremetyevo recently announcing a ten percent year on year reduction in passenger numbers mirroring data latterly released by the Austrian Tyrol, confirming tourist numbers from Russia are suffering Europe-wide, EU sanctions against the Putin regime that are now filtering through to ordinary citizens accounting for a massive 35% drop in Russian skiers visiting the Austria Alps during the 2014/15 winter season.

The announcement and subsequent start of Adria’s flagship service into London Southend should be a reflection of the hard work that has been undertaken by the management of an airline, that, only last year stood on the brink of collapse – the liquidity from the sale of two of its aircraft being the only quick fix, if a somewhat onerous one, that could keep the carrier in the air. Indeed, a business model predicated on a series of sale and lease back agreements for ‘its’ planes and the hiring of further aircraft to bolster its fleet has been far from popular and is generally considered to be bad industry practice from a state airline. Whilst it cannot be overlooked that Adria only owns one of the twelve aircraft it will operate this summer, the choice between having no Slovenian presence in the skies or one choosing to execute a strategy being the lesser of two evils will for the time being see a continuation of this policy by the airline’s management. Positive publicity emanating from Adria enunciating increased passenger numbers and bullish five year projections have though recently been seriously undermined by unrest within the airline’s rank and file, with acrimonious relations between Adria and unions representing its cabin crews and pilots seemingly at breaking point. Despite industrial action announced for today(June 1st) by Adria’s cabin staff being narrowly averted ahead of talks scheduled for tomorrow, the revelation that some of the airline’s pilots have openly questioned Adria’s future as a going concern show that all is far from well at the airline. By announcing June 1st as a symbolic date to down tools, the unions showed a real intent to strike at the heart of the airline by coinciding industrial action to run in tandem with the day regarded in the aviation industry as the start of summer season and, to disrupt a new but embryonic service into London that’s seen as being vitally important to Adria’s desire to create a low-cost arm to its business, primarily to be based in Maribor. Should the threat of strike action been upheld a route very much seen as a litmus test for future services from Maribor would’ve got off to a most inauspicious start.

Whilst all is not rosy in Adria Airways’ garden, the future for Maribor Airport until recently seemed bright and relatively straightforward. Recent news reports have though suggested that Delavska hranilnica are seeking to divest themselves of their majority stake in the aerodrome, although whether this volte-face is related to ongoing speculation linking Chinese investment with the airport and the wider Maribor region remains unclear. An alternative scenario that Delavska have been disappointed at the amount of flights it has managed to attract to the airport cannot be discounted but whilst conjecture has continually swirled around their 2014 purchase of the airport, insinuating the venture into aviation was more a defiant gesture – proving investment in Slovenia’s key assets could be sourced from within the country rather than overseas – towards the privatisation policy adopted by Slovenia’s incumbent administration than a long term strategy to diversify its business portfolio, only a firm public statement affirming its future strategy and commitment(or otherwise) to the airport will silence rumour-mongers.

As has become the norm of late in the Slovenian aviation sector, the situation continues to be fluid and subject to rapid, sometimes unexpected change. The events of the next few months will be keenly anticipated by pundits and tourists alike.

Further reading on this matter can be viewed at:

Slovenia Times: Adria’s Maribor to London route commences

RTV Slovenia: Maribor to London route all set for takeoff