When it was recently announced that Maribor’s Edvard Rusjan Airport is set to rouse itself from relative hibernation in such an unexpected, nay spectacular fashion, those local to the modern but chronically underused facility were not the only ones to wonder if Christmas or April Fools’ Day had arrived ahead of schedule.

From a standing start of no scheduled flights, few charters but some cargo services, Maribor, as a city and airport, is now expected to digest the staggering news that since its purchase from former proprietor Delavska hranilnica, new owners SHS Aviation intend to facilitate not only transcontinental flights but also the acquisition of perhaps the largest aircraft to ever be stationed in Slovenia. Although rumours abound of Canadian and Dutch money bankrolling the deal it is in fact Chinese financial-muscle which gives clout to overly optimistic plans that arguably lack overall credence and realistic expectations of longevity and viability.

The overtly Chinese-influence on the deal stems from, on paper at least, the intention to operate services between Maribor, yes Maribor, and three Sino-cities, albeit not ones that readily come to mind or trip off the tongue. These though would account for the procurement of FIFTEEN Airbus A330’s – whose operational range and larger seat configuration lends itself to long-haul operations. A raft of shorter-haul services are also included in the eleven-destination package, although it is difficult for me to envisage how many passengers from the likes of Berlin, Hamburg, and Zurich will want to travel to Maribor – although perhaps that is a slight on Slovenia’s picturesque second city. Nevertheless, the market always decides on the future viability of flights so one does have to ask the question why such cities haven’t already linked up with Maribor, if a perceived demand for these air routes already exists? Perhaps we will only know if there is a demand by actually testing the water to see if one exists. Destinations with perhaps greater staying power include Podgorica and Belgrade, flights that will in the main be populated by Montenegrin and Serbian diasporan remittance workers and their families. Doesn’t though the relatively adjacent Ljubljana already provide these routes?

Should Fraport, the German-owner-operator of Ljubljana’s Brnik Aerodrom and flag-carrier Adria Airways be worried by this curve ball delivered from the east? If, and it is a big if, that even a smaller, watered down version of the original plan comes to fruition, I predict the greatest loser to be Adria Airways, who are seeking to consolidate operations from Brnik  – a strategy that has seen the discontinuation of flights from several obscure Polish cities once municipal subsidies had run their course. Direct competition between SHS Aviation through its Slovenian subsidiary VLM Airlines Slovenia and Adria Airways offers an intriguing prospect of a new kid on the block taking the fight to an established player seeking to reaffirm its newly found relative stability. If both airlines operate the same route they will have to squabble over the same target market; there are certainly not enough Slovenians to keep both operators happy although it would seem to me that flights arriving from China will be timetabled to allow passengers to seamlessly transit on to connecting flights to Switzerland and Germany. Crucially, this wouldn’t greatly affect Adria but would also offer Maribor as a tourist destination little in the way of financial benefit should its airport be the only part of Slovenia many of the passengers will actually get to see.

I would be surprised if Fraport lost any sleep over Maribor’s punt into the big league. Despite it having reduced its reliance on Adria to keep Brnik ticking over the former state-owned airline does still account for around 60% of all Ljubljana’s aviation traffic. Fraport has though broadened the range of foreign carriers using Brnik; any additional uncertainty regarding Adria’s future viability after an already turbulent few years since its acquisition by 4K Invest will surely see Brnik’s owners increasingly plan for a future where the influence wielded by Slovenia’s state airline inexorable wains.

Are plans for long-haul flights between Maribor and China feasible? I would always say yes if they amounted to half a dozen charter services in the summer months – equally so when nearby Pohorje welcomes the FIS Ski jamboree for the annual Golden Fox ladies slalom. Otherwise, purely to service Slovenia I cannot see how a fleet of A330’s flight after flight can possible reach high load factors. Acting more or less exclusively as a transit airport for Chinese passengers traveling to Germany and Switzerland, and London, the plan just might stand up to scrutiny. Much will depend on to whom these routes are aimed, and if schedules can be finely calibrated to link incoming flights from the Far East with their connections to Europe’s business capitals. Or, perhaps Slovenia and its multitude of attractions(which should never be overlooked or underestimated) can expect a new era of tourism, sourced from a unlikely destination and facilitated by an even more improbable series of events.

Will all of Maribor’s Christmases come at once or is this a plan long on ambition, short on reality? Even if the scheme is ultimately proven to be sincere after initially being taken in good faith, will it fold like a pack of cards in a similar way to Ryanair’s failed dalliance with Maribor, now a decade ago? How much benefit will Maribor as a city and its surroundings gain, should the plan ultimately be predicated on transiting passengers from one flight to the next in the shortest possible time? Or, have I and other aviational commentators completely missed the point, influenced in no small way by Edvard Rusjan Airport jumping from being an inert underachiever to a potentially significant(but unlikely) regional hub? Just because it has never happened before(or nobody had conceived such a notion) does that mean it cannot be a success?

There are too many questions that nobody can for the time being answer. In an age of scepticism and cynicism the plans of SHS Aviation will need wings far greater than those of Icarus to succeed – although many will surely predict a similar outcome. Whether Maribor’s grand plans ever get off the ground will very much depend if its progenitors have overreached themselves before they’ve even begun in earnest.

Further details and source information:

Ex Yugoslav Aviation blog: http://www.exyuaviation.com/2017/03/vlm-slovenia-to-launch-eleven-routes.html#comment-form AND

http://www.exyuaviation.com/2017/03/vlm-slovenia-readies-for-operations.html#comment-form

Dnevnik: https://dnevnik.si/1042765739

Radio Television Slovenia – news in English: http://www.rtvslo.si/news-in-english/maribor-to-get-regular-flight-routes-this-year-also-to-china/416402