With little to show for their grand, albeit barely believable plans to turn Maribor’s Edvard Rusjan Airport into a regional commercial and freight hub since acquiring the facility in 2016, the now entirely Chinese group of investors have continued to keep their cards close to their chest, although it has been assumed that a lack of activity isn’t necessarily an ominous portent but an indication of the backers being in it for the long haul.

A scheme reportedly worth over €600 million designed to completely transform what is already a fine airport, albeit one whose size limits it to regional flights, into a hub capable of receiving wide-body aircraft from the Far East attracted predictable criticism. Many questioned how an airport that has recently handled only 6,000 passengers in a calendar year can suddenly become the destination of choice for those transiting through central or eastern Europe from the Far East. There is undoubtedly a level of untapped potential but few seem to agree as to what that might be.

Uncomfortably close to firmly established airports in Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Graz it is difficult to identify which demographic and indeed the preferred core of its business that Maribor should pursue. Are there enough people in and around Slovenia’s second city lamenting a lack of action at its airport, or are they now so accustomed to venturing the relatively short distances to Brnik, or over the Austrian and Croatian borders for their flights that Maribor’s airport has become an irrelevance, a white elephant?

An option to use Edvard Rusjan Airport solely as a freight terminal would be one option, although all its aforementioned regional competitors will ensure that this sphere of aviation is just as competitive and unforgiving as the cutthroat commercial flight sector. The existing issue of the runway being of insufficient length to accommodate larger cargo aircraft would though be a significant impediment, although the delay in a regional spatial plan to facilitate the increase of the airstrip’s footprint is undoubtedly a drawback to the current plans being realized. Local sensibilities would also have to be considered, which are not only concerned with the increase in noise associated with larger aircraft, but also a potential loss of prime agricultural land should the airport be expanded as per its original proposal. Although once high quality farmland is lost it is gone for good, there is undoubtedly some wriggle room for the airport’s operators regarding noise pollution inflicted upon the local population. There is, after all, little or no traffic currently using the airport; it is therefore realistic that that cannot be expected to stay the same forever, assuming of course it does actually have some form of commercial viability in the medium to long-term.

I have long postulated that Maribor Airport should and can be used in its current guise, without any incursion into the local countryside but as a vital economic driver for the city and region. As ever, this would involve a joined up approach between realistic custodians of the airport, local tourism professionals, and foreign package tour operators. If plane loads of travellers can be brought to Innsbruck, Salzburg, and Ljubljana for alpine holidays, why not to Maribor for its Pohorje region? City breaks are popular throughout the year; why therefore are the wonderful cultural and architectural attractions in Maribor not used to entice tourists looking for a weekend away? The same can be said with Europe’s omnipresent Christmas markets.

Furthermore, eastern Slovenia is well known for its thermal(terme) spar facilities. Such destinations are enduringly popular with the peoples of the former Soviet Union, and would amount to a captive audience for the operators. The vast market of Russia and its erstwhile republics is a massive open goal for Maribor – one that is continually being missed.

Now two months behind with rental payments to the Ministry of Infrastructure, it is not clear if Maribor Airport’s Chinese owners are having second thoughts or are attempting to play hardball by forcing the hand of authorities seemingly dragging their feet regarding delays in implementing the spatial plan, without which the talk of larger Airbus aircraft landing and being stationed at the airport will remain just that. There has though all along been unsubstantiated suspicion that the investment’s opaque nature and a lack of provenance of funds amount to little more than a sinister money laundering exercise; a viewpoint given some credence by the outlandish nature of the original plan to turn what some would unkindly call a ‘village airport’ into a large, transcontinental hub. A tie up with former Belgian carrier VLM Airlines failed, although the marketing of its modest services was nonexistent, again giving rise to conspiracy theories of there being little of substance behind the facade. It is though with some irony that the type of destinations previously serviced by VLM from Maribor – Antwerp, Munich – are more in line with where the airport’s expectations should be.

I highlight just a few of the markets that could be exploited by Maribor Airport and its environs, although there is little chance under its current auspices of these being capitalized on. Guilty of being seduced by big talk with little substance, the local authorities have failed to attract an operator with realistic plans and expectations that in the end will benefit all parties. Aviation is a notoriously unforgiving industry and while unlikely to generate financial returns using the likes of Fokker and Saab aircraft, it is surely better for Maribor to have a strong roster of charter flights using Airbus A319-A321 aircraft than to continually live in a cloud cuckoo land of being a wide-body aircraft hub.

The current ownership with its far-fetched plans represents anything but a new, Utopian tomorrow for Maribor’s Edvard Rusjan Airport. Until commonsense prevails or another proprietor with a more regional bent can be found, the continued inertia will not only inflict further insult upon a fine, ready for business facility but also highlight the lack of due care and attention afforded the country outside of Ljubljana. One does though wonder if during the denationalization process that saw the Brnik sold to airport operator Fraport, if it was decreed that the state wouldn’t interfere or assist with the affairs of Maribor’s airport, instead adopting a laissez-faire attitude where the market will ultimately decide its fate. Although there may be other explanations as to why the state continually fails to comment on what admittedly is a private sector matter, a general paucity of dialogue and interest will inevitably lead the public and aviation observers to arrive at their own conclusions. Maribor Airport is though a piece of infrastructure of national importance, and should be treated as such.

Source material and further information:

RTV Slovenia: www.rtvslo.si/news-in-english/are-the-chinese-bidding-farewell-to-maribor-airport/470113

STA News Agency: www.sta.si/2566863/kitajski-najemniki-mariborskega-letalisca-dolzni-ze-dve-najemnini