At the time of their purchase of Maribor’s Edvard Rusjan Aerodrom, Delavska hranilnica, the trade union-backed savings back sought to stem the tide of foreign investment taking over Slovenia’s aviation infrastructure. Viewed as a microcosm of the prevailing winds of privatization being actively encouraged by the country’s incumbent regime hell-bent on shrinking the state, or, more precisely to divest it of loss-making concerns traditionally seen as ring-fenced mainstays of the public sector, Delavska set out to prove that rather than touting Slovenia’s family silver to the highest bidder home or abroad, solutions could be found from within the country itself. The subsequent majority stake in Maribor’s modern but under-utilized airport therefore seemed at the time to be a perfect riposte to Ljubljana’s Brnik Aerodrom being sold to Fraport, the Frankfurt-based airport operator.

Despite being capable of handling in excess of 600,000 passengers per annum, Maribor saw a pitiful 11,000 use its gateway to eastern Slovenia in 2015. A short-lived but only moderately successful reintroduction of flag-carrier Adria Airways’ services from the airport, after a fifteen year hiatus, failed to herald a renaissance in air-travel from a city high on potential but whose position is unfortunately situated in relation to so many other more established airports within less than a two hours’ drive. One can therefore quite envisage a scenario when on completion of the deal to acquire its stake in Maribor, Delavska executives busy slapping each other on the back suddenly stopped to wonder what they are to do with their new purchase. The inertia that followed during its two year custodianship of Maribor Airport would suggest that whilst acquired with the noblest of intentions, there was little in the way of a cogent business plan to take the airport forward in a meaningful way.

Although the airport’s new owners are a Slovenian-registered investment vehicle, it is Chinese money that has reported paid €7 million for the Hoce Slivnica-based concern. Herein lies the ultimate irony but Delavska have either felt the time has come to end their diversification into aviation, or that the point they originally wished to make has been successfully made, and that specialist knowledge with deeper pockets than theirs is now needed to proportionally grow the airport over the medium to long-term.

The purchase price is expected to rise to €10 million should the new operators secure a fifteen year lease on the airport’s infrastructure, which at least highlights their desire to stay for the long-haul. It is though difficult at the moment to see, other than the Chinese charter flight tourist market, which sectors SHS Aviation will seek to target who can bring in passengers numbers anywhere near the airport’s operating capacity. Due to Maribor’s geographic position it is possible that a more cargo-based business will be developed, allowing its situation close to Austria, Hungary, and Croatia to be exploited by offering cheaper deals than some of its larger regional competitors.

I for one hope but don’t expect the adjacent Pohorje ski and hiking area to be used to leverage tour operators to broaden their usual itineraries of Kranjska Gora, Bled, and Bohinj by including another overlooked aspect of what the Maribor region has to offer. Ljubljana is traditionally and logically used for the three aforementioned alpine resorts based in the north west of the country but Maribor, host to wonderful outdoor opportunities including a yearly appearance on the FIS World Cup skiing roster is perennially disregarded. As is so often the case in Slovenia, a more joined up business plan predicated on linking together the component parts of what is good about the country could reap dividends. If Chinese financial muscle can achieve what Slovenian ingenuity has so far failed to deliver, the time for Maribor’s Edvard Rusjan Airport to realize its potential could soon be upon us.

Source material courtesy of:  Ex-Yugoslav Aviation blog – exyuaviation.com (28th December 2016).

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