Truth can be stranger than fiction. Although this is a case of the truth slowly seemingly becoming reality, the fidelity of what at first appeared to be an early April the 1st wind-up will not be accepted until hard evidence is seen on the ground; or to be more precise – in the air.
Let me explain. Slovenia is a very small country with a population of approximately two million inhabitants. Its primary airport is based in Brnik, close to the nation’s capital Ljubljana, which it has served since 1963. Although several minor airstrips exist elsewhere in Slovenia the only other airport of substance is based in the east of the country, adjacent to the nation’s second largest city, Maribor. Edvard Rusjan Airport is though a modern facility that has been chronically underused; despite it’s annual estimated capacity being in the region of 600,000 passengers less than 10,000 travellers passed through its doors in 2016, that itself representing a significant drop from 2015’s figure of 24,000, largely made up of those using the now discontinued London Southend route, operated by flag-carrier Adria Airways.
Why, is such a user-friendly facility so blatantly overlooked? Maribor’s close proximity to several, more established regional hubs – Graz, Zagreb, and of course Ljubljana – allows travellers from throughout Slovenia to access a wide range of flights within a few hours from home; in such a small country it is not a big issue for Slovenians to drive to Brnik, even if they reside between Maribor and the Hungarian border. The same principle can be used for nearby Graz, whose roster of flights welcomed nearly 1,000,000 travellers in 2015.
So, whilst Maribor Airport looks good and is ready for business, with the advent of Low Cost Carriers and the increased willingness(and ability) of potential locally-based customers to use nearby established airports, even those over the border, it has rarely, if ever, been vital or strictly necessary. One would even go as far to say, geographically speaking, it has become superfluous.
A few years ago, alarmed at the rapid denationalisation of a raft of the country’s institutions including Brnik and eventually Adria Airways, the Slovenian savings bank Delavska hranilnica bought Maribor Airport, sending a veiled message to the then government that instead of seeking solutions from outside the country’s borders, ones could be located from within. Although lacking in experience in the aviation industry Delavska were though seen as a safe pair of hands, from which relatively great things were expected. They never materialised. Aside from the ill-fated Adria service between Maribor and London Southend, little tangible change was noticeable under the auspices of the trade-union backed savings bank. We will never know if the purchase of Edvard Rusjan Airport was merely to make a point to the Slovenian government, although I would like to think the bank’s intentions were honourable. Perhaps having entered an alien-industry that necessitates the deepest of pockets just to simply exist, Delavska had insufficient funds and sector-specific know-how to grow operations in Maribor to anywhere near its operational capacity.
Although somewhat at odds with its original stance, by selling Edvard Rusjan Airport to a multinational company backed by Chinese money, there seems to be a grudging acceptance from Delavska that only foreign liquidity can realize Maribor’s ambitions. Many an eyebrow was though raised once news broke regarding Sino-involvement with the airport’s acquisition, under the guise of SHS Aviation Slovenia. Furthermore, a subsidiary of SHS, VLM Airlines have recently been granted an Air Operators Certificate(AOC) by the Slovenian Aviation Authority, to in effect convey passengers and cargo from Slovenian soil. Having acquired six Fokker 50 turboprop(propeller) aircraft from the now defunct VLM Airlines(Belgium), it is with these planes of somewhat limited range that SHS presumably seek to start operations from Maribor to a host of European cities, including Belgrade, Podgorica, Hamburg, Zurich, and London, despite some doubts a 58-seater Fokker can reach the United Kingdom from eastern Slovenia. My research does though suggest such an aircraft has a range of 1,243 miles, ensuring it can comfortable make the 750 mile journey between both cities.
Many industry insiders would, with reservations, have accepted that routes between Maribor and several prominent European cities could feasibly operate, albeit with little(if any) profit generated by the use of such small aircraft. Therein lies the financial risk commensurate with all airlines: smaller planes equal less profit but lower operating costs; larger jets with the potential to create greater profits have bigger running costs and passenger load factors. Play it safe – make no money. Take a risk – potentially lose it all. In no other industry can the risk/reward factor be so pronounced.
It would though seem that short-haul operations slated to commence from Maribor were merely an appetizer before the main course. A scarcely believable intention to service routes between China and Maribor using a fleet of Airbus A320 and A330 forms the most eye-catching part of SHS’s grander plan, that by 2022 seeks to ‘grow’ annual passenger numbers to in excess of 1.5 million – more passengers than Ljubljana’s Brnik currently processes. With Maribor’s current capacity ‘limited’ to a more realistic 600,000 the construction of a new terminal(or an extension appended to its existing building) will be required to cater for such a significant differential in numbers; to be able to receive larger aircraft the airport’s runway is also expected to be lengthened.
As the significant barrier of receiving the Air Operators Certificate has been overcome, it has been suggested that operations could commence within a month. Herein lies SHS Aviation Slovenia’s first big test of credibility. Already with so much scepticism surrounding the project, for the owner-operator to miss its first indicated deadline, especially if this involves the more modest routes it intends to fly, would only give further credence to those who assert that the whole plan is nothing more than a hoax, or a well-meaning but ill-conceived pipe dream heading for inevitable failure.
Whilst a case can be argued that Maribor is ideally located at the crossroads between east and west, should it simply be used as a hub to transit Chinese passengers from one plane to another, the economic benefits to the wider area can firmly be described as negligible. For even the 400,000 passengers predicted by SHS to use Maribor THIS YEAR, flights will need to commence almost immediately. By their own timetable – within a month.
As the saying goes: Don’t write cheques your butt can’t sign.
Source material and further information:
Ex Yugoslav Aviation: http://www.exyuaviation.com/2017/05/vlm-slovenia-prepares-for-takeoff.html#comment-form
(The former) VLM Airlines(Belgium) Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VLM_Airlines