When national newspapers and travel periodicals post reviews of a particular Austrian or Slovenian resort, or a certain aspect of one such as a new hut to hut trail or multi-peak walk, articles are usually concluded with where the author stayed, and how he or she arrived. Although a London-centric media will invariably seek to fly from Heathrow or Gatwick to the Alps, journeys are often described as landing in Vienna before an onward train journey, a very long one at that, to for example Zell am See for Saalbach Hinterglemm, or directly to the stations that service Kitzbuehel, and St. Anton am Arlberg.

There remains a lack of direct options for travellers both north and south of Watford, a perennial problem that has existed for those who do not wish to visit the Alps as part of an Inghams or TUI Lakes and Mountains package deal. Whilst this summer Jet2 offered twice weekly flights to Innsbruck from Manchester, seats which could be bought directly through its website or as part of a package with the aforementioned companies, the Yorkshire-based airline will be slashing this to a Saturday only service for the 2023 season.

This is not a blog post that is focusing on one season or another, with the dynamic of the airports in question, Ljubljana, Maribor, Innsbruck, and Salzburg, being significantly different. The question posed for each of this quartet is non-identical and amounts to contrasting scenarios but written from the perspective of how improved services would enable more UK travellers to enjoy the Alps, this post also seeks in particular regarding Maribor how its airport can be brought back into viability and from the brink of closure.

Since Slovenian flag carrier Adria Airways folded, the only way to directly visit the Julian Alps, Ljubljana, and Adriatic Coast was from Gatwick, Stansted, and London Luton. For those located further north and opting to travel to Bohinj, Portoroz, Bled, Kranjska Gora, and Bovec TUI and Inghams can only offer flights to Salzburg, some four hours away from Slovenia’s classic holiday destinations. This represents a far cry from the days when Adria flew twice a week between Manchester and Ljubljana.

As it stands Slovenia is the only country within the European Union which is resistant to the blandishments of Ryanair, although rumours have (re)surfaced of late regarding dialogue between Fraport, the owner operator of Ljubljana’s Brnik airport, and the Irish Low Cost Carrier (LCC). Adding credence to this was the advertisement of recruitment open days for prospective cabin crew, to be held in both Maribor and Ljubljana.

Ljubljana’s Brnik is reportedly an expensive airport with which to do business, something that jars with the principles of an LCC. Nevertheless, it remains a significantly underserved airport from a UK perspective, something which is surprising considering that Slovenia has similar alpine appeal to Austria to mountaineers and hikers. Perhaps Ljubljana wishes to keep out British stag and hen parties which is as plausible as it is understandable, but the majority of UK visitors are curious and respectful of this corner of the former Yugoslavia.

My ideal scenario would of course be a rebooting of Adria or the creation of a new Slovenian flag carrier, but this is unlikely enough to be discounted. There can though be no reason why eventually the gap in service is finally woken up to, with regular flights operated by Ryanair or EasyJet to Brnik from Manchester and/or Liverpool.

The curious story of Maribor’s Edvard Rusjan Airport can be found elsewhere on the ‘net and indeed within this blog, but in a nutshell, it is a ‘ready to roll’ facility with no customers or flights. It does though have the accolade of being the only Slovenian airport to have received Ryanair flights, during a brief flirtation in 2007. When subsidies were not forthcoming or continued from the Slovenian side, the service was sadly hooked. It might be stretching a point to say the airport never recovered from this setback, but it remained an underperforming and underserved facility despite significant EU investment to construct its current terminal building. Stories that it may now just exist for aircraft storage and as a base for flight schools are as frustrating as they are sad.

A lack of joined up thinking and collaboration from pertinent stakeholders in the Maribor area and central government lie at the problem. With a wealth of hiking and skiing opportunities in the nearby Pohorje Massif, numerous thermal spa facilities within easy reach, and the city of Maribor itself being a bona fide city break destination in its own right, it is baffling as to how nobody has cottoned on to joining the dots to sell Slovenia’s second city and the wine-growing eastern region of the country as a prime tourist destination. As things stand anyone intrepid enough to venture to Maribor must fly into Graz or Brnik, the latter involving a fairly long onward road or rail journey.

My wish list for Maribor would be for Ryanair to (re)commence flights from the UK, perhaps initially from Stansted, before connecting it with other cities of the former Yugoslavia. This could also stimulate the likes of Wizz Air and Air Serbia to join the party. Maribor and the Stajerska region are true year-round destinations catering for winter sports enthusiasts and hikers, viniculturists, historians, and spa seekers. I do not wish to see this wonderful area overrun with tourism, but it seems completely unnecessary for it to be continually overlooked and poorly marketed.

Innsbruck’s Kranebitten Airport is a different beast in the wintertime than it is during the warmer months. On seeing the roster of flights for any given Saturday between December and April, I have frequently wondered how such a small but perfectly formed facility can cope with the amount of people, luggage, and aircraft movements. In the summer a handful of flights can make the terminal feel crowded and rather warm, but many bigger aircraft arriving in the winter from all manner of UK and European destinations must put this well-run airport under momentary strain.

It is therefore the summer season where I seek an improvement of connectivity between the UK and Innsbruck. With a regular EasyJet service between Gatwick and Kranebitten the south is predictably reasonably well catered for, but a scheduled Jet2 service from the end of May until mid-September will as previously stated be reduced from Wednesday and Saturday rotations to just the latter for 2023, with less seats for package holidaymakers and independent travellers to vie for.

There will be operational reasons for this. My Jet2 flights between Manchester and Innsbruck and the return were not even half full, but it was early in the season. Many of the Austrian resorts serviced by Inghams and TUI are accessed through Salzburg’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Airport, with several such as Niederau, Saalbach Hinterglemm, and Kitzbuehel equidistant between Salzburg and Innsbruck. In these instances, and others where Salzburg Airport is if anything further away than Innsbruck, it is understandable that the more affordable to land at former is preferred than the latter. Nevertheless, for those wishing to visit the Paznaun/Silvretta region (Galtuer and Ischgl), the Oetztal (Obergurgl and Soelden), St. Anton am Arlberg, and the Zillertal (Mayrhofen, Finkenberg, and Hintertux) Innsbruck Airport is the only viable Austrian option.

It is not for me to say that Innsbruck Airport must become more affordable for airlines to do business with it. Cheaper, or rather less expensive landing charges could bring in more flights than the airport can realistically accommodate, and there are only so many pilots who hold special licenses to fly into an airport that is surrounded by what we’ll call challenging terrain. From a personal perspective I would prefer a twice weekly summer service into Innsbruck used by package tour operators, but also a weekly service operated by EasyJet again from Manchester or Liverpool that affords greater flexibility than otherwise being restricted to Wednesday and Saturday flights.

Holidaymakers travelling to resorts serviced by Salzburg Airport are well catered for both during the summer and winter seasons, but similar to Innsbruck greater flexibility for those who wish to travel independently could be afforded by the addition of an LCC flight from the north of England outside of the traditional Wednesday and Saturday schedules.

From this brief analysis it is clear that Slovenia remains a significantly underserved destination for UK travellers, especially those who live further north than the Home Counties. The ‘reasons why’ and challenges are very different at Brnik and Maribor, but the fundamentals remain the same – a lack of accessibility and insufficient collaborative marketing of wonderful areas of the Alps that share similarities with Austria and Switzerland but also deeply contrast through topographical, cultural, and historical nuances, as well the backstory of vastly differing political systems and attendant architecture.

Austria is an enduring popular destination with UK travellers, especially those seeking alpine thrills. It is undoubtedly true that away from Vienna it could be better connected with the UK, but the Tirol’s close proximity to Munich does to some degree mitigate its aviational shortcomings. By comparison Slovenia’s Julian Alps remains an impoverished cousin.

Advertisement