Should a country the size of Slovenia expect to have a national airline?

A nation of just over two million citizens is not an ideal market for an established flag carrier or one that is considering starting up, and had the former Yugoslav republic not previously been serviced by the now defunct Adria Airways, I would arguably be of the opinion that once bitten would be twice shy.

It is though this crucial aspect of Adria’s backstory that makes Slovenia a special case. The once state-owned airline, admittedly a loss-maker but that is hardly a rarity in such a financially-draining sector, was sold off to German/Polish so-called ‘turnaround specialists’ 4K Invest, who it was thought acquired the Star Alliance member in good faith. What followed was akin to viewing a car crash in slow motion from behind the sofa: without its own aircraft which had gradually been sold off and leased back, Adria had few in the way of assets that could arrest a slide in fortunes which had previously been offset by the state, but when released into the private sector accelerated beyond a point of no return.

It is moot if 4K had conducted adequate due diligence, initially had the best of intentions towards Adria, or simply set out to strip it of assets that were hardly of a value to make its new owners a significant, or any profit. Criminal investigations opened to ascertain the reasons behind Adria’s demise, and the likelihood that money was siphoned off into a Byzantine web of companies that formed part of the 4K Invest group.

Despite the finite nature of the Slovenian market Adria could draw upon custom from neighbouring countries, including Slovenia’s fellow former Yugoslav republics. There was and remains a niche for a Slovenian airline to work within, including the flying in of tourists to visit the likes of Bohinj, Portoroz, and Ljubljana itself. As with the basket case that Maribor Airport became after unrealistic proposals were never brought to fruition by its Chinese tenants, there is a general feeling that Slovenia has never cottoned on to its potential as an all year round destination and the location for winter sports’ and city breaks. If I used the phrase ‘ripe for exploitation’ it would potentially conjure up visions of being overrun by tourists a la Venice and Dubrovnik, but there is a middle way to be found between such mass, unchecked tourism and the missed opportunities which Slovenian tourism continued to overlook long before the pandemic even took hold.

Reflecting on its past mistakes of handing over Adria to what turned out to be a wholly unsuitable speculator, the Slovenian government appears to have sidestepped any suggestions from aviation experts and nostalgic Slovenes to bankroll a Adria 2.0 reboot. It would surely be the preserve of the private sector to form a new national airline, although I am not convinced that such a title can be used even if it is the only carrier registered in and operating out of a particular country. Whether a flag carrier/national airline can be monikered as such is again moot, although that would seem to be incidental in the grand scheme of things.

There is scope for an experienced individual or even one or several of easyJet, Wizz Air and Ryanair to establish a base in Ljubljana or Maribor – the former as the nation’s capital would be preferable – to fully capitalize on so many unserved routes between Slovenia and for example, the northern cities of England, and the various gastarbeiter destinations within the former Yugoslavia. Slovenes are frequent travellers, and should also be uppermost in the thoughts of any airline which theoretically takes the plunge within the country. Reestablishing links with London airports, Mediterranean hotspots, and historically popular North African resorts should rank high among future priorities.

Notwithstanding the devastating effect that the novel coronavirus has had upon the aviation sector, how likely is it that any of this will ever come to pass? An airline named Air Adriatic had purchased Adria’s Air Operating Certificate(AOC) with a view to establishing a new national carrier, but after delays in ironing out issues with the license that had already been granted a pandemic-related extension, the Slovenian air regulator pulled the plug on Air Adriatic grasping this aviational nettle.

Improving connectivity is the main priority but that will remain distorted until the aviation market fully reopens up, something that will take an indeterminate length of time. Agreeing in principle with airlines to (re)establish routes into Ljubljana is all well and good, but the nature of the global pandemic and its resurgence in some areas of Europe could see another lost year which could be the ruin of many carriers.

There does otherwise appear to be little progress in the viable reestablishment of a Slovenian airline, with the pandemic only serving to highlight yet further the precarious nature of such a debilitatingly expensive industry in which to break new ground. I believe the best that Slovenia, specifically Ljubljana’s Brnik Airport, can hope for is a gradual increase in traffic from airlines who previously served the capital. It will only be when this has reached something close to the peak of pre-pandemic traffic can the addition of the profusion of unserved routes be considered, preferably by an established player in the budget-airline bracket.

Realistically, the creation of a standalone Slovenian airline must surely rank after the above has been satisfied, which could still be several years away. I believe with the correct marketing and employing those with industry savvy that there is scope for a national carrier, but without learning from the mistakes of the past Slovenia could once more end up with a wealthy individual or company thinking they have the financial and experiential knowledge to make such an extremely complicated, time-consuming and expensive venture a success. Sadly, or perhaps thankfully, it rarely works that way.

Source material and further information:

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