In what seems more a desperate, last throw of the dice than a shrewd, if albeit pragmatic change of aircraft supplier, Slovenian flag-carrier Adria Airways have quite possibly made a future-defining decision that does little to guarantee the Star Alliance member’s ongoing presence in the skies of central and eastern Europe.

With a potential fifteen Sukhoi Superjet 100 at its disposal Adria are not acquiring the Russian built aircraft directly off the production line, but as a result of Ireland’s CityJet sending back the jets following the termination of its own wet-lease agreement with Brussels Airlines. There is very much a sense of the 4K Invest-owned carrier being reduced to picking up lower tier aircraft on the cheap, fuelling the already considerable rumours of its impending demise.

A fleet that previously consisted of the usual Airbus and Bombardier suspects was recently added to by six Saab 2000 turboprops, acquired from the defunct Swiss-based Darwin Airline initially absorbed into the Adria/4K Invest family trading as Adria Airways Switzerland, before bankruptcy proceedings at the latter end of 2017 ceased all operations. Seen by some observers as merely a ploy to acquire the Saabs, the turboprops were grounded at Ljubljana’s Brnik Airport amid claim and counterclaim, although the albeit aging fifty-seat jets are now in active service.

As Adria struggles to maintain its traditional foothold in a south eastern Europe market increasingly dominated by Low Cost Carrier(LCC) big-hitters Wizz Air, Ryanair and EasyJet, a hybridization of its business model has seen a move into the lucrative ACMI (Aircraft, Crew, Maintenance, Insurance) market that in effect leases not only members of its Airbus and Bombardier fleet to other carriers, but also includes the comprehensive expertise needed to operate and maintain aircraft. Whilst Adria haven’t as of yet completely given over all of its fleet’s most-coveted and reliable planes, there is nevertheless a strong sense that cheaply-acquired Saabs and seemingly gifted Sukhois are being brought in at the expense of the better aircraft at its disposal.

Prior to absorbing the Saab jets Adria Airways, a Star Alliance member and national flag-carrier owned none of its aircraft. Prior to the airline’s denationalization its fleet was gradually whittled away to effectively keep it airborne, often using what must be soul destroying sale and leaseback agreements. Throughout the global financial crisis Slovenia’s government continued to prop up an airline that couldn’t generate enough income of its own to remain viable, but even as a state-owned enterprise the continued plugging of financial black-holes was untenable, hence Adria’s inclusion on a list of public institutions that were to be sold off. Its purchase by 4K Invest though included few actual assets aside from its brand, goodwill from an established regional market presence, a dedicated and skilled workforce, and presumably existing take off slots. It is though moot if an airline can even be described as such if it exists only because of the aircraft of others; I am even not sure if the definition of a national flag carrier pertains to an airline that once was but is no longer under state control, even if it is the only carrier of its kind in Slovenia, or a country of its size.

I would argue that bringing the Sukhoi jets into the fold isn’t even specious reasoning. It doesn’t seem like an good idea, and won’t prove to be one. Evidence suggests a very low uptake of the Russian-built and designed aircraft, with CityJet and Brussels Airlines only the most recent examples of the planes being returned to the leaseholder, or even Sukhoi themselves. The issue with the timely sourcing of spare parts and maintenance of jets poised to become an integral part of Adria’s operations will severely test an image already damaged in 2018 by countless flight cancellations, resulting in millions of euros(€) of compensation being paid out to affected customers. The Brnik-based aircraft maintenance concern Adria Tehnika, formerly Adria Airways Tehnika and once part of the eponymous carrier before being separated and sold off to financially aid the airline, would be the obvious choice both geographically and for their expertise to potentially maintain the Sukhois, although its industry-recognized prowess is instead reserved for both Bombardier and Airbus jets…

It is unsurprising that a lack of an appropriate business-model, not questions of mechanical reliability was promulgated by the Russian Minister for Industry and Trade as the reason why CityJet returned the jets to their original source. One though could argue that a robust aviational business-model can only be conceived and executed using aircraft on which it can depend; one of those classic chicken and egg scenarios – where both sides are never likely to reach consensus.

If Adria Airways disappeared from the skies would the effect be more tsunami-esque, or that of a mere mill pond ripple? That is one imponderable that can only be answered in the event of such a scenario coming to pass. I for one hope that it can maintain a strong presence in its niche geographic market, but airlines cannot be kept alive on sentiment alone. Image, through reliability is everything to a carrier that hardly has a stranglehold over many of its key routes. Low Cost Carriers with their sharp, almost brutal ways of working have changed the aviation landscape, ensuring that countries the size of many of the former republics of Yugoslavia no longer have an automatic right to their own airline. Could Slovenia exist on a diet of ‘just’ Wizz Air, EasyJet, Turkish Airlines, Air Serbia, and eventually Ryanair? I would say it could. For Adria to therefore remain an integral part of Brnik’s operations it needs to rediscover the quality of absolute reliability to go hand in hand with its professional, on board service and former good name. Flailing around in search of aviators able, and willing, to pilot 23-year old Saabs and what can generously be described as fifteen unknown quantities is not the right approach.

An airline the size of Adria should in essence correspond to bijou Slovenia’s acreage but actually represents potential somewhat greater, by dint of its geographic location at the gateways of both western and eastern Europe and as a conveyor of a sizeable former Yugoslav diaspora. Does Adria though have a hegemonic grip on this market that couldn’t be wholly absorbed by the Europe’s LCC leviathans? No. It therefore needs to do well what it does; in my view that would be best served by utilizing Airbus and Bombardier aircraft, not Sukhoi and Saab.

Source material and further information:

Ex Yugoslav Aviation:

Adria Airways fleet(without as of yet the inclusion of the Sukhoi fifteen):

Adria Tehnika:

The Slovenia Times(archive article):