Further details have emerged of the proposed deal between Slovenian flag-carrier Adria Airways and Russian aircraft manufacturer, Sukhoi.

It was initially thought that the Brnik-based airline was to receive existing aircraft previously withdrawn from service and returned to source by Ireland’s CityJet, themselves having wet-leased the SSJ100 jets to the Belgian carrier Brussels Airlines. It instead appears that whilst these aircraft are slated to be available to Adria by 2021, a staggered delivery of up to fifteen aircraft, some of which are new but presumably yet to be built, are also included in what will be a phased introduction to Adria’s fleet.

Two years hence may not seem too distant in the future but in the aviation industry it can be a lifetime, furthermore so in the case of Adria, of whom many will ponder if there will even be an airline bearing its name in 2021. Notwithstanding what is something of a  byzantine series of arrangements regarding its current fleet, none of which are owned by Adria but with many in effect sublet on wet lease arrangements to other airlines, the Star Alliance-member will still have to deal with the complexity of controlling aircraft manufactured by four different companies: Airbus, Bombardier, Saab, and Sukhoi. Although it is anticipated that Adria and Sukhoi will jointly conceive a maintenance division to oversee the latter’s SSJ100 series, the timely sourcing of spare parts from Russia and the expertise needed to ensure punctuality and reliability of its timetable are absolutely crucial, especially in the wake of Adria’s reputation being so undermined in 2018 by a series of damaging cancellations, often at the last minute, of many of its scheduled services.

For an airline of Adria Airways’ size to operate using aircraft from four different manufacturers is completely untenable, potentially compromising routes on which its Saab and Sukhoi jets will be used. Although now a separate entity to its the airline, the once eponymous aircraft maintenance concern Adria Tehnika, formerly Adria Airways Tehnika, are based at Brnik and are from geographic and expertise standpoints an ideal partner with whom to keep Adria airborne. It is therefore unfortunate in the extreme that Adria Tehnika primarily specialize in the maintenance of Airbus and Bombardier jets, the two most reliable manufacturers of planes in Adria’s fleet, but which are seemingly being squeezed out in favour of the incoming Sukhois, and the now in situ Saabs.

My opinion therefore holds that the Saabs absorbed through the acquisition but subsequent bankruptcy of Darwin Airline, towards the end of its existence operated as Adria Airways Switzerland, and the imminent Sukhois are with whom Adria’s management foresee the immediate future of the airline. By dint of their performance records and reputation Airbus and Bombardier aircraft will always be attractive to other carriers, hence Adria’s desire for the ACMI – Aircraft, Crew, Maintenance, and Insurance – aspect of its business model to become an increasingly dominant feature of its overall operation. It is hard to imagine the Saab and Sukhoi elements of its fleet ever being in similar demand by other airlines.

The labyrinthine acquisition of the then Swiss-based Darwin Airline was to me complicated by whether the subsequent co-opting of the six Saab turboprops into Adria’s fleet was by Adria’s owner, 4K Invest, or by Adria themselves. It is clear that they are not one and the same, although by owning both entities there was nothing to stop 4K from renaming Darwin as Adria Airways Switzerland. Despite the aircraft now being part of Adria Airways'(Slovenia) fleet the airline is still considered to not actually own any of the jets it operates. There is therefore still some ambiguity over ownership of the Saabs which despite obviously having been overcome in a legal sense – some, if not all are now in active use – their grounding at Brnik for much of 2018 attests to the many claims and counterclaims regarding what many believe was the appropriation of an airline to merely shut it down, and take possession of half a dozen aircraft on the cheap. There is nothing to suggest that anything illegal occurred, although it is difficult to look beyond what might have been the execution of a recognized, but somewhat immoral, series of business practices.

Perhaps through relative ignorance within the aviation industry, or simply because of a perceived/justified poor reputation, the proposed introduction of the Sukhois to Adria fleet has been met with some negativity. There is though a sense that it is more a reflection of the airline’s problems that it has little choice but to take this course of action; it is also highly likely that the deal is one so financially favourable that it is one that Adria couldn’t refuse. Reputation is though absolutely everything in aviation; a repeat of Adria’s raft of 2018 flight cancellations could spell disaster, with many of its routes serving south-eastern Europe ones that could quite easily be absorbed into the rosters of other regional players, and those of Wizz Air, easyJet, and Ryanair. It might though be the intention of 4K, who themselves are turnaround and sale specialists, to make their money through the ACMI arm of Adria’s operation as part of an exit strategy.

It isn’t yet clear if 4K have defined a route towards Adria’s possible denouement, or an endgame where the airline is disposed as a going concern. There may as yet not even be a strategy for the long-term, but merely one to approach the carrier’s current problems from all conceivable angles. Reshuffling of the deckchairs on the Titanic might in the end be a masterstroke that gives wings to Adria, rejuvenating fortunes once its niche in a very unforgiving industry has been cemented. It is though symptomatic of simply not knowing what lies ahead for Adria that rumour and conjecture are fuelled, leaving industry experts and observers little choice but to come to their own, mainly negative and often apocalyptic, conclusions.

Source material and further information:

Ex Yugoslav Aviation: www.exyuaviation.com/2019/02/sukhoi-to-complete-adria-deliveries-by.html