The fact that Ljubljana’s Fraport-operated Brnik Airport is still lagging significantly behind its pre-pandemic passenger numbers, and indeed prior to when Adria Airways ceased operations late in 2019, is not because Slovenia is the only country within the European Union(EU) to not receive flights from Low Cost Carrier(LCC) Ryanair, but brokering a deal with the Irish-based operator could not only pick up some of the slack but also (re)open new routes either left unserved since Adria’s demise, or that have never been exploited in the first place.

Despite reportedly encouraging passenger load factors Ryanair’s brief flirtation fifteen years with Maribor’s Edvard Rusjan Airport was soon grounded, with the thorny issue of regional or state subsidies becoming an insurmountable obstacle. Ryanair have previously, in fact fairly recently, stated that connecting its services with Brnik is not viable due to the proximity of both Trieste and Zagreb airports, where the carrier is established, and high landing charges which would inevitable be passed on to the consumer, rendering the service to be far less of a low cost alternative than its raison d’etre demands.

There is of course the option of once more using Maribor, a chronically underused airport to the point of it almost being mothballed but is nevertheless a very much ‘ready to go’ facility that is crying out for some attention from a big hitter within the low cost sector. As ever in Slovenia, especially regarding Maribor, much will depend on a fully integrated, joined up approach drawing together all relevant stakeholders to work in unison to make Maribor an attractive proposition to tourists, and not just aim services at Slovenia’s numerically limited diaspora and students from the other former Yugoslav republics who are studying in Slovenia’s second city. To say effort has to be made to market Maribor an attractive alternative for alpine and city break tourists is though perhaps a little misleading, only because this isn’t a case of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear or polishing the proverbial; no, far from it. Maribor and its environs are wonderful locations to visit, but more people need to know what it has to offer. Even if it is simply used by Ryanair or another LCC as a more cost-effective way of reaching Ljubljana, it is vital to have integrated transport links that seamlessly facilitate the passage of customers between points a and b.

The full story as to why Fraport have so far repelled the advances of Ryanair, and/or have made business conditions too inhospitable may never be known, but without any probability of gaining full cognisance can at least be guessed at. Is there a certain cachet to being the last country within the EU to be impervious to Ryanair’s blandishments; would Fraport rather deal with more prestigious legacy airlines who are less likely to balk at high(er) landing charges, and in theory carry passengers whose behaviour might be better and pockets deeper?

Theories abound, but in the end I feel that Slovenia may just need Ryanair more than it needs Slovenia, purely because of the country’s geographic situation. Being strategically located in Central Europe also means close proximity to a plethora of other, albeit diverse countries. Freedom of movement has though made it relatively easy to visit Slovenia by flying into Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia so whilst Ljubljana would like to be and should be better connected than it is with flights that directly link it with other airports, the truth is there for all to see that visiting the country is not reliant upon being able to fly uninterrupted into it.

It can therefore be argued that ease of transit across borders does not generate much need for new services into Brnik(and Maribor) when Slovenia is so accessible from other airports, but in a chicken and egg situation this is only the case because airports such as Graz, Trieste, and Zagreb blinked far quicker than Ljubljana when routes were being formulated, and eventually established. Despite regional connectivity, there is no substitute for flying direct, as long as the price is right. Therein lies the rub.

Whatever the outcome with Ryanair, three things must be remembered. Firstly, this is a rumour that inevitably rears its head every few years, quite simply because the carrier serves every EU member state but Slovenia. Secondly, whatever approach it takes Fraport and indeed the Slovenian government must expeditiously get to grips with the country’s poor connectivity, and fill the void that Adria left behind. Where are the flights into Slovenia from UK airports based north of London? If Innsbruck can have Jet2 services from Manchester, Bristol, and Birmingham, why does Brnik not receive anything from these and other airport further north, for example in Scotland? The interest is there, but mountain-loving package holiday travellers will continue instead to go to Austria and Switzerland where it is far easier to directly do so.

My final point of three is perhaps one which has the most at stake. It isn’t an exaggeration to suggest Ryanair’s possible presence in Slovenia, reportedly from 2023, could be Maribor Airport’s last stand. If it cannot make a compelling case and develop a financial package which Ryanair cannot say no to, what is the actual future for Edvard Rusjan Airport? To be considered merely as a facility for aircraft storage and a flight school does not even scratch the surface of the facility’s potential, one it should be remembered whose terminal building was bankrolled by the EU’s munificence. Ryanair (perhaps) coming to Slovenia is not just about Brnik, but depending on the outcome could serve as a catalyst or death knell for Maribor’s fit for purpose but almost forgotten airport.

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