“Mighty oaks from little acorns grow” or so the saying goes. The loss this week of the only scheduled flights operating out of Maribor’s Edvard Rusjan Airport is another blow to the ever-increasingly far-fetched proposal to link eastern Slovenia with a roster of services from China. Far from following a growth trajectory consistent with reaching the ultimate aim of the first flights from the Far East touching down in Maribor, the withdrawal of VLM Airlines’ Antwerp via Munich service heralds a further withering on the vine of the grandiose plans initially earmarked for Slovenia’s second city.

Originally consisting of a Dutch and Chinese coalition since its 2016 purchase of Maribor Airport owner SHS Aviation has recently become a wholly Sino-owned entity, with the acquisition of the 60% Dutch shareholding. A labyrinthine tie-up with Belgian airline VLM appeared to be a front to facilitate Maribor’s investors getting a foothold in the city’s faltering aviation presence. Despite a modern, ready-for-business facility Edvard Rusjan Airport has suffered from chronic under-use, instead relying on the few breadcrumbs thrown their way by summer charter operators, and the occasional visit by football fans – Glasgow Rangers last week – when their teams come to town. Time and again the argument that Slovenia is too small to accommodate a viable airport away from its Brnik hub rears its head, as does the relative proximity of the bigger and established Graz and Zagreb. Despite attractive fares demand for the Munich/Antwerp flights was minimal, although poor to non-existent marketing hardly assisted in propelling the route into the psyches of potential locally-based customers. Also, aged turboprops are not the most attractive mode of regional aviational travel.

It is therefore with some incredulity that the operator of an airport currently with no scheduled flights intends to extend its concession to a fifty year tenure. Playing the long game in business is a strategy for which all enterprises will have to some extent make provision, but without a short to medium term plan to grow the airport’s commercial appeal to both regional airlines and passengers, attempting to take a short cut to the realization of its ultimate goal for long haul flights containing free-spending passengers is just plain unrealistic. Claims of sharp practice and money laundering, both wholly unsubstantiated, are nevertheless given some credence by firstly the totally bizarre plans for Maribor, and the subsequent lack of passenger growth and tangible progress towards the ‘end game’. It should also be noted that all the while that this commercial inertia holds sway, the current owner is obliged to pay a €100,000 monthly fee for the right to ‘operate’ the concession.

To receive wide-body aircraft from the Far East, or anywhere else, significant alterations are needed to Maribor’s runway and attendant facilities. These are yet to commence and are as far away as ever from doing so, until at least consensus has been reached with Slovenia’s central government and presumably Maribor’s city authorities over rezoning land to enable the necessary adaptations to take place. Crucially, nearly two years on from being purchased from Marprom, provider of mass-transit operations in the Maribor area, nothing has happened to suggest change geared towards the goal of creating a passenger hub for tourists from the Far East is anything but the initially scoffed at castle in the air concept.

Rather than search for realistic solutions that will bring about a happy ending for this highly capable but under-served facility, it is of course far easier to find fault with what is not happening at Maribor’s airport. Should Fraport, the German owner-operator of Ljuljana’s Brnik Aerodrome make a play for Maribor, transferring some of its cargo business to the east of the country or as is perhaps more pragmatic, offer the likes of Ryanair a way back into Slovenia with vastly reduced landing fees to the ones it seemingly refuses to pay for the privilege of using Brnik? The Irish-based Low Cost Carrier(LCC) had a brief flirtation with Maribor over a decade ago, but Slovenia as a whole remains the only EU nation to not be a part of Ryanair’s route network.

Maribor and its environs have enough in the way of thermal spas, wine-tourism, and skiing and hiking(at nearby Pohorje) to attract, with the appropriate levels of marketing, a sufficient number of visitors to keep its airport open. Until though a genuinely joined up strategy is executed by all the relevant stakeholders in the area and the Ljubljana-based government makes it a priority to decentralize rather than concentrate Slovenian life, the country’s innumerable possibilities away from the capital will remain lost. In the case of Maribor Airport, that could soon be in perpetuity.

Source information and further information:

Delo: www.delo.si/gospodarstvo/novice/se-vlm-airlines-dokoncno-umika-79732.html

Aeronautics Online: http://aeronauticsonline.com/routes-of-the-week-week-32-of-2018/

Ex Yugoslav Aviation: www.exyuaviation.com/2018/08/maribor-airport-left-without-flights.html