It has been a while since I have written anything about Maribor’s Edvard Rusjan Airport, for the good reason that there has been little of note to report from Slovenia’s secondary landing strip, which has all but ceased operations.
Notwithstanding the obvious novel coronavirus-related pause to air travel Maribor’s airport cannot actually point to Covid-19 as having a destructive effect to its operations, which had already been grounded prior to the pandemic making landfall in Europe.
A complicated ownership/operator structure which previously left most aviation observers none the wiser as to who owns the airport has through a rather convoluted path led back to government control of the modern, fit for purpose facility that has since a 2012 renovation been all dressed up, but increasingly with nowhere for passengers to fly.
Some of the most recent activity centred upon Chinese involvement, in what always sounded to be an improbable plan to develop the airport into a European hub for flights arriving from the PRC. With grand plans to station perhaps dozens of wide-bodied aircraft in Maribor to wing passengers to and from the Far East and elsewhere, Slovenia’s mostly unknown second city was getting an unusual amount of attention from the most unexpected of suitors.
The plan, if it ever did have wings, never in the end threatened to take off, with the need to lengthen the runaway being a prerequisite for much larger aircraft than the airport has previously accommodated, something that a hotly-disputed spatial plan would have needed to include for the scheme to bear fruit. All the while the Chinese concessionaire was paying rent to operate an airport that received few if any commercial flights, without which significant income to offset expenditure couldn’t be generated. This obviously resulted in an untenable situation for both parties, with the plan, already doubted by many as a pipe dream, even a scam to some, in the minds of its Chinese progenitors being undermined by a lack of cooperation from the Slovenian government who for whatever reason had not brought forward a renewed spatial plan critical to its success. In turn it was argued that few if any flights in the meantime had been attracted to Maribor that could be accommodated by its relatively modest but undoubtedly serviceable airport. When the Chinese consortium stopped paying its monthly dues for what it considered to be a breach of contract, both sides from their differing standpoints arrived at the same legal conclusion.
Many have questioned why Maribor Airport even exists or at least what it can offer that isn’t catered for elsewhere. When the facility previously known as a flying school became a commercial entity, in 1976, the world was a very different place. Although part of the Non-Aligned Movement rather than a full blown Communist entity under the yoke of Soviet rule as most of Eastern Europe was at the time, the concept of freedom of movement and borderless travel to and from Yugoslavia, in which modern-day Slovenia was a part of, were as alien of concepts as the prospect of the Berlin Wall being upended 13 years later.
Nowadays, many Slovenians based in the north east of the country and elsewhere in a nation of 2 million citizens use the airport in the Austrian city of Graz to take them where Ljubljana’s Brnik cannot, although the latter years of Tito’s hold over Yugoslavia and even into the 1990’s were much different. Entering Austria from Yugoslavia/Slovenia was not the routine journey it has become today, but with a timetable of services connecting Maribor with the major Yugoslav cities and coastal holiday hotspots on, it didn’t need to be.
When border restrictions and internal mobility not being what it is today so heavily influenced how citizens travelled and to where, the scenario of such a small country having two airports of their type was not the issue it undoubtedly is today. I doubt anybody wishes to see the demise of Maribor’s airport, but where there have been potentially logical uses for its facilities in the past, they simply haven’t been acted upon.
Situated in rolling countryside and replete with vineyards and wellness facilities, the opportunities to match the region with appropriate markets and their predilections have always been there, but rarely, if ever been exploited. It is well-known that many citizens of the former republics of the Soviet Union are partial to thermal baths, and spa facilities; set amid bucolic surroundings, this demographic is an open goal for a savvy entrepreneur and/or tourism association to cotton on to but for whatever reason, it has never happened.
Equally, the nearby Pohorje massif offers all-year-round opportunities for hikers, mountain bikers, and from December to March, winter sports aficionados. Indeed, the FIS(International Ski Federation) Golden Fox race is a fixture of the women’s Ski World Cup calendar and could itself bring in charter plane-loads of visitors travelling through Edvard Rusjan Airport, but never has. Known for producing some of, if not the best wine in Europe, viniculture is a significant industry in this area of Slovenia, which could but again doesn’t stimulate organised wine tours that theoretically begin from the moment adherents land in Maribor.
There is though also the allure of Maribor itself. A city in name and with all the feel of a junior metropolis, Slovenia’s second city is modest in size without such a description being taken as pejorative. Anything but. With a more Slavic feel than Ljubljana there is a tangible feeling of being in Eastern Europe, but somewhere that Teutonic and neighbouring Hungarian influences do not water down the Slovenian identity. Fine architecture, shopping, countryside, and physical recreation await visitors, but again the city-break market, in which Maribor is more than capable of being included within, has never been tapped. This in itself is unfathomable, but all the more so when one recalls that this splendid city has its own airport just sitting there ready and waiting, ultimately in vain.
In a country of such innovation, great intelligence, and wonderful natural assets it continues to baffle me how the respective stakeholders have not sat down to work together to bring the various demographics of tourists to Maribor, which would give its airport a reason for being. It also seems that plans recently mooted for the airport will not assist in fulfilling its potential or that of the surrounding area. Steering it towards being repurposed as a logistics hub for significant local and regional employers in effect removes the commercial aviation element from Edvard Rusjan Airport, and will presumably under such proposals receive cargo associated with the nearby Magna car factory and Luka Koper, Slovenia’s primary port situated many miles distant.
As a use for a facility deserving of far more such an outcome is of scant consolation, but represents a pragmatic alternative to dereliction, and the need to return European Union money used to fund the 2012 upgrade should it cease to be used as an airport of some description. Finding solutions for a future, albeit alternative use will to many be better than it sitting idle and withering on the vine, but rather than being assumed to be another victim of Covid-19, Maribor Airport is a casualty of free market paralysis and a lack of an obvious, progressive and pertinent plan from within the corridors of power, resulting in what increasingly looks to be a case filed in the ‘what might have been’ category.
Source material and further information:
Ex Yugoslav Aviation: http://www.exyuaviation.com/2020/11/slovenia-to-transform-maribor-airport.html?m=1