To describe VLM Airlines as Maribor Airport’s ‘anchor tenant’ somewhat stretches a definition more associated with large retail concerns, situated to attract custom to smaller, adjacent businesses. Despite offering a modern, fit for purpose terminal, VLM were though all Maribor’s Edvard Rusjan Airport had, aside from sporadic charter flights for visiting soccer teams. Having recently reduced the frequency of, then suspended altogether its flights to Antwerp via Munich from Slovenia’s second city, VLM have since gone into liquidation; in effect, its most recent guise will soon cease to exist.

Until recently the ownership of VLM and Maribor Airport were inextricably linked through SHS Aviation, whose 2016 purchase of the aerodrome from Marprom was meant to be just the start of an aviation renaissance for the region. Plans that admittedly seemed high-flown from the start included linking Maribor with several Chinese cities, and the the basing of maybe dozens of wide-body Airbus aircraft at the airport. Notwithstanding those who understandably gave the proposed scheme short shrift, predicating their reticence on unsubstantiated money laundering accusations, there were many who wanted to believe the scheme had wings, although one suspects even these Pollyannas knew that it would never be brought to fruition. Prior to the cessation of VLM’s activities SHS Aviation divested its majority shareholding of the airport to Chinese investors, taking its Sino-based ownership to 100%.

Once more there is a complete absence of scheduled flights from Edvard Rusjan Airport; why then under these circumstances would the current owner seek to extend its concession rights for the airport from fifteen to fifty years? Accusations of money laundering, again unsubstantiated, are hardly likely to go away unless a detailed, realistic plan is expeditiously publicized – if only to allay fears that Maribor’s renewed dormancy isn’t to become terminal.

The time is now for the Slovenian government to intervene in this sorry situation. If nothing else the incumbent administration should commission a forensic report, firstly into the purchase of the airport, then the subsequent empty promises. Questions regarding the provenance of the hundreds of millions of euros(€) allegedly needed to bring the airport up to code for the use of wide-body aircraft should though have been asked by Ljubljana from the outset.

If state subsidies were offered to attract Low Cost Carriers(LCCs) to Maribor Airport, accusations of anti-competitiveness could be levied unless the Fraport-owned Ljubljana Airport received the same incentive. Herein ultimately lies the problem with subsidies designed to artificially stimulate growth, especially in a country so compact as Slovenia. Fraport could successfully argue that they have had to stand on their own two feet without help from public funds, and, with any commercial activity, the market ultimately decides the fate of private enterprise – including airports. Municipal subsidies are an alternative, although such funds are finite and usually have a limited shelf life.

Although a special case could be made for Maribor’s extremely unfortunate airport, the market has arguably decided on previous occasions when Ryanair came, and went, as did flag carrier Adria Airways in 2015 with its short-lived London Southend service. It is hard to see where Maribor goes from here, although I have always stated it should, through its close proximity to Pohorje and many thermal spa resorts, and with the right marketing, be able to maintain tourist flights for themed holidays to the mountains and in Wellness centres. Sadly, the will and or expertise isn’t available, not even during the winter season when Pohorje annually holds the FIS Women’s “Golden Fox” race. As a city of culture and one of outstanding architectural aesthetics juxtaposed with rolling countryside, Maribor should be, but isn’t, on the city break trail for those who enjoy visiting the likes of Budapest, Vienna, Innsbruck, and Prague.

With fewer than 120 passengers PER WEEK on average going through its terminal during 2017, a footfall of 6,000 travellers for a calendar year is probably less than nearby Zagreb handles PER DAY. Therein lies a different but highly pertinent reason that without some form of outside help or stimulus from genuine, transparent owners, the proximity of established airports in the Croatian capital and nearer still in Graz, both of which are under 70 miles away, will remain preferable and viable starting points for the holiday plans of the Mariborcani. Ljubljana’s Brnik, situated itself only a few kilometres further away still, gives what is a limited catchment area three airports with numerous routes and worldwide connections.

As things stand, Maribor Airport, for all its fine facilities, can offer absolutely nothing.

Source material and further information:

Ex Yugoslav Aviation: www.exyuaviation.com/2018/09/vlm-airlines-goes-into-liquidation.html

Aviation Tribune: http://aviationtribune.com/airlines/europe/regional-airline-vlm-airlines-goes-into-liquidation/

TTG Media: www.ttgmedia.com/news/vlm-airline-goes-into-liquidation-15313