Build it and they will come, or at least as the saying goes. As an attempt to be a catchall principle the aforementioned is a tad vague, perhaps at times specious, but the message remains: only through market exposure can a commercial enterprise expect to prosper; there is little prospect of success without anyone knowing of you or your product’s existence. From this blatant truism I segue to the case of VLM Airlines, of Maribor.

Slovenia’s second city has an impressive, serviceable, but virtually unused airport. It could be attested that there are few more over-looked facilities of its kind anywhere in central and eastern Europe. No doubt with this in mind SHS Aviation, the parent company of VLM and the airport’s owner-operator visualized the undeniable potential of an alternative away from Ljubljana’s Brnik for Slovenians, as well as its geographic situation being of use to those in nearby Carinthia, Hungary, and Croatia. Subsequent plans, of a scale which have led to ridicule and a heavy dose of incredulity, include the material development of its landing strip – thus enabling Maribor to receive wide-body aircraft from several Chinese cities. Deadlines have subsequently been and gone, with only a few charter services between Maribor and the Croatian coast being the extent of VLM’s operations, until it announced a link between Slovenia and Munich would commence during 2018.

A management degree from Cranfield is though not required to see what is blatantly obvious: an airline cannot live off operating an extremely limited roster of services using a fifty-seat aircraft. Nevertheless, as a forerunner of what is still promised to come, the Maribor-Munich link was seen as an opportunity for VLM to demonstrate its ability to slowly build its credibility and reliability within a famously competitive but unforgiving marketplace. It needed to prove it could walk shorter distances before embarking on longer routes that require greater endurance, and commitment. It is therefore with some bemusement that VLM have slashed operations from five to two rotations per week, in response to weak load factors. Firstly, I am surprised that insufficient passenger numbers have been drawn from Maribor’s catchment area, but especially from Munich itself and its large ‘travel to work’ area, which though brings me back to the original point in the first paragraph. If, as has been suggested, that the route’s lack of exposure has precipitated its stagnation, one inevitably begins to wonder if the grand VLM/SHS project is about to fall at the first hurdle.

The development of a new route from Maribor’s all but mothballed Edvard Rusjan Airport should have been a cause for celebration, but a lack of marketing and publicity have set up the whole project to fail. Has a lack of credulity from large sections of local society also been to blame? I would suggest that yes, it has, when the original scheme to eventually connect Maribor with China was greeted with a heavy dose of cynicism, and no little suspicion. Do locals think this is a ‘fly by night’ operation, with little substance by which to deliver on what it probably doesn’t actually believe itself can achieve? Even those with a modicum of commercial nous will wonder how VLM can operate its only current Maribor-based service on such low fares.

Although a joined up, multi-agency approach for any new route is critical to its success, there appears to be a lack of a coordinated strategy which should include the online platforms of Maribor Airport, VLM, and the local tourist office working in concert. There is also the need to publicize the route in the densely populated regions outside of Slovenia’s border, where much of its potential customer base could be drawn. This of course only accounts for one side of the route; where therefore is the collaboration with the equivalent agencies in Munich, and Bavaria?

Will the Munich route disappear with barely a whimper? What does the denudation of services just as the summer season is about to commence say for VLM’s longer-term ambitions for Maribor? Adding a few token sunshine trips to Croatia’s coastal tourist-traps will fail to assuage those already sceptical that there was never any likelihood of Airbus A330 aircraft landing, and being stationed at Maribor.  There are dozens more questions than answers but quite simply, if a route of such relative simplicity as one between Slovenia and Munich cannot be appropriately marketed, there is no evidence to suggest that the posited transcontinental services will ever be anything but pie in the sky.

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