The world has considerably moved on since Maribor Airport opened to commercial aircraft in 1976. For more than two decades the site, and its grassy airstrip, in the neighbouring Hoce-Slivnica municipality had been the preserve of an acclaimed air school. Only once the construction of a more conventional runway and terminal building had been completed could Slovenia’s second international airport become reality; its inaugural flight destined for Dubrovnik ushering in a new era in Slovenian aviation for what was then the northernmost reaches of Yugoslavia.
Events of the last few years have brought into question the very need for an airport in Maribor, at least one so geared up for commercial traffic but chronically underused. The political landscape of the airport’s inception in 1976 was though very different; now it seems impractical for a country the size of Slovenia to have two international airports – Ljubljana’s Joze Pucnik Aerodrome is the other – less than a couple of hours by road apart, and with Zagreb, Graz, and Klagenfurt all within striking distance of those from the north and east of Slovenia.
There was of course less mobility in 1970’s Yugoslavia; whilst car ownership was hardly unheard of the levels of affluence within the clutch of republics that made up Tito’s precariously held together federation increased further north from the capital Belgrade. Widely regarded as the richest and ergo most productive area of Yugoslavia Slovenia could perhaps absorb the building of a second airport if its citizens had the higher levels of disposable income needed to holiday abroad. Nevertheless, even in the 70’s it wouldn’t have been a great hardship for those living in outlying areas to access Ljubljana’s airport in Brnik.
It is now a given that those from the Maribor region and its environs have the wherewithal to travel to Austria or Croatia, perhaps even Hungary, to access a greater array of holidays destinations than are currently serviced by the Fraport-owned airport in Ljubljana or ever were from Maribor. Fifteen years before the last remnants of the Iron Curtain were consigned to history those able to travel overseas by air did not have the luxury of accessing the likes of Graz and Klagenfurt with the ease, we take for granted since the Schengen Agreement was signed. The frontier between Yugoslavia(Slovenia) and Austria in 1976 was classed as a ‘hard border’ – not one which could be hopped across with today’s alacrity.
It is therefore arguable that Maribor Airport was of its time; it is no coincidence that its high-water mark in terms of passenger figures and cargo transportation was reached in 1990 – only months before the wholesale disintegration of Yugoslavia began to unfold.
With activity now at an all-time low since a Dutch-Chinese consortium pulled out of its leasehold contract of the state-owned airport, the time for being realistic as regards its long-term viability as a commercial entity is surely upon us. Notwithstanding the simply astonishing claims that the airport could become a significant hub for flights arriving from China and a desire to station dozens of wide-body Airbus planes in Maribor to facilitate this projected Sino-influx, it is of little surprise that the now departed tenants excused themselves from a €100,000 per month contract that in effect represented money sluicing through their hands, without any tangible returns.
Although expected to make a loss in the short to medium term the initial link with the now defunct VLM Airlines did not allay fears from the Maribor region and wider aviation community that the ambitious plans for the airport were either a ruse, laundering cash without obvious provenance, or was simply a case of naivety betraying a lack of research and realizable funds. If the short-lived service linking Maribor with Munich and Antwerp set the tone for the whole venture, depending on the point of view it either highlighted an operator some way out of its depth that couldn’t even make a modest regional service work, or a token sop to appease those already getting twitchy from a lack of aviation activity.
Closing down Maribor Airport is impossible before 2021, ten years on from when it received a European Union(EU) subsidy to modernize its current terminal building and associated infrastructure. Whether accusations that the EU failed to do due diligence on the viability of a regional airport in Slovenia now that citizens enjoy the benefit of freedom of movement is moot, although European money has in effect refurbished what is now the nicest unused airport on the continent, perhaps beyond. Calling time on the airport before the end of 2021 would automatically cost the Slovenian government €6 million and whilst the cost of maintaining it during the next two and a half years, assuming a new tenant isn’t found, could rival or eclipse the multi-million euro investment from Brussels, there is always the possibility that a fresh operator will step in with a realistic, scalable plan to remove the burden from Slovenian taxpayers.
I have long advocated that Maribor’s airport is in just the right place for charter flights from Russia and the wider former Soviet Union, particularly for those within these countries who enjoy Spa/Wellness holidays. In an area replete with such ‘Terme’ facilities it wouldn’t take too much effort to coordinate a joined up approach between the local tourist board, hotel operators, and tour companies to bring travellers all year around to the area for a form of holiday that isn’t reliant on the capricious nature of an alpine climate.
Maribor can also boast serious credentials as a city break destination and one that can be included on the continent’s Christmas Markets itinerary. For those with a weakness for viniculture eastern Slovenia affords aficionados with a credible wine trail and the world’s oldest vine, close to the city’s River Drava.
There are therefore several credible reasons for Maribor Airport to be rejuvenated in the right hands, as long as plans remain realistic and that all stakeholders work together for the benefit of the wider region. The airport is of course only as viable as the airlines it can attract, and if anyone is willing to take on a long lease for its operation. For the former tenant’s plans to be realized the runway needed to be significantly extended to accommodate wide-body aircraft, to the understandable chagrin of local residents concerned with the loss of trees and agricultural land at the expense of greater noise and particulate pollution. Realistic plans for the airport, for it to receive short haul flights removes the need to extend the landing strip; there is plenty to work with without needlessly damaging the local environment for what will never happen or was ever going to.
If in 2019 Slovenia only had one international airport it is extremely unlikely that it would ever contemplate building another in the country, in Maribor or elsewhere. Whilst times, tastes, and expectations have exponentially soared the fact remains that an airport born out of the Yugoslavia’s Non-Aligned politic system of the time as part of a wider, Cold War-inspired Iron Curtain of hard borders, can be of use as part of a modern Slovenia situated as it is, at the frontier between central and eastern Europe. There may be several compelling cases for the reemergence of Maribor Airport and whilst the government may wish to close it down finances begged from Europe dictate otherwise, and ultimately drive the narrative for what I hope will be a happy, but pragmatic ending for the city’s Edvard Rusjan Airport.
Source material and further information:
Ex Yugoslav Aviation: http://www.exyuaviation.com/2019/06/state-to-take-over-maribor-airport.html