Adria Airways’ summer schedule was presumably released by the Brnik-based flag carrier on the proviso that it was to begin receiving, through a phased introduction, the first two of what was to be a deal for up to fifteen Sukhoi Superjet 100 aircraft. The introduction of the Russian-made jets to the Star Alliance member’s fleet would have gone some way to offset the loss of several of its reliable, workhorse Airbus and Bombardier planes that were already locked into wet-lease agreements with other European airlines. Now facing a perfect storm of a seemingly cancelled agreement with Sukhoi and without having many of the remaining fleet at its disposal, will Adria be able to honour its already scaled-down summer timetable?

The reason behind the failure for both parties to agree terms is unclear, mired somewhat in conjecture and without as of yet comment from the Russian manufacturer. It appears that prior to the expected delivery of the first jets Adria had made all the right noises, including sending crew for training on what is a hitherto unknown jet to the Slovenian carrier, and establishing a maintenance and repair concern to ensure continuity of service. The Brnik-based Adria Tehnika, formerly Adria Airways Tehnika, could not be commissioned to oversee ongoing airworthiness of the Sukhois’ due to their expertise lying elsewhere – namely with Bombardier and Airbus. Therein lies one of the several reasons why aviation observers have been puzzled by a decision to take on what is a much-maligned jet, at the expense of two established manufacturers whose mechanical issues could be dealt with on site, adjacent to Adria’s Brnik base.

One stumbling block to the deal in which Adria appear to have blinked first could be the unwillingness of Sukhoi to in effect pay the airline to take its jets, especially on terms that ceased to be advantageous for the Russians. It is no coincidence that a self-imposed deadline for a €10 million cash injection by owner 4K Invest into Adria has now passed, without there being a clear indication that it has actually taken place. One theory is that 4K hoped to source this money from Sukhoi, and not their own coffers. Whilst there is absolutely no concrete evidence to suggest this is it more than a coincidence that the plug has been pulled on the deal at approximately the same time Adria’s owner was due to recapitalize the airline?

It is anticipated in a deal as such was proposed that a certain amount of reciprocity is inevitable, with Adria presumably acquiring extra jets for its fleet at a knockdown price to give Sukhoi’s image a much-needed reboot in the European aviation sector. The fact that CityJet sent back two Superjets before the end of the Irish carrier’s agreement with Sukhoi speaks volumes of the Russian manufacturer’s image problem in a crowded marketplace dominated by Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, and Embraer. It would also have been of some concern that the two planes returned to Russia were to be the first delivered to Brnik.

After a disastrous catalogue of delays and cancellations during 2018 Adria’s previously respected image was critically dented, something Sukhoi could argue occurred whilst the airline utilized its Airbus and Bombardier jets. Should the Slovenian carrier follow last summer’s debacle with a need to renege on part or all of its published 2019 timetable, it will be hard to see how it can continue to operate as a viable, commercial enterprise. Should Adria instead decide to concentrate instead on an ACMI – Aircraft, Crew, Maintenance, and Insurance – business model is must be remembered that the airline owns none of the Airbus and Bombardiers that it is choosing to wet-lease out to other airlines; in effect, these jets are being sublet.

The only planes within its fleet that Adria were thought to own are the six Saab 2000 turboprops circuitously acquired following the demise of Swiss-based Darwin Airlines and its successor Adria Airways Switzerland, the former perhaps bought for 4K Invest/Adria Airways(Slovenia) to increase the size of the latter’s fleet. With only two of the Saabs actually being operated by Adria – two are wet-leased to Swiss with the remaining turboprops otherwise stored and not in use – their limited capacity and range have brought few, if any net gains to the airline. It was thought that Adria Airways had absorbed the six Saab 2000 jets into its ownership on the demise of Darwin and its Swiss subsidiary but an official statement in July 2018 from the airline suggests they are instead being leased from Miami-based Jetstream – the primary global lessor of Saab regional jets. Does this mean that Darwin Airline was the original lessee of the Saabs, with Adria only inheriting the lease contract rather than the actual ownership? It would appear so.

Aircraft at one’s disposal does not equal ownership, nor does it preclude them from being ‘sublet’ onward on ACMI contracts to other carriers. The definition of an airline is “a business that operates regular services for carrying passengers or goods by plane”. If an airline does not though own any of the aircraft within its fleet, it retains few tangible assets to surely be considered such – perhaps in name only. Previously a byword for reliability and professionalism Adria have not quite shot their bolt with passengers, but it would now seem 2019 could be the most crucial and defining year in the airline’s 58 year-history.

Source material and further information:

Ex Yugoslav Aviation: http://www.exyuaviation.com/2019/04/adria-airways-cancels-sukhoi-jet-deal.html

Adria Airways statement: http://www.adria.si/en/news/2018/adria-airways-is-expanding-its-fleet-with-six-additional-aircraft/

Cambridge Dictionary airline definition: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/airline