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Carriers wary of airport sale

News that Bratislava airport could be partially privatised in the near future has struck fear into existing and potential carriers in Slovakia over the possible influence that Vienna's Schwechat airport, were it to take a stake, might have on Slovak air transport.
The Austrian hub has long talked of its interest in Bratislava's M.R. Štefánik airport, which is only 60 kilometres distant. Following Transport Minister Jozef Macejko's March 22 announcement that he would like to see the Slovak capital's airport partially privatised, carriers voiced concern that Vienna's involvement in a sale, even partial, could result in the larger Schwechat using Štefánik to boost its own capacity and ignore the needs of Slovak carriers.
"Vienna airport is a strong candidate [if a tender for privatisation were called], but if the object of their investment was to impose the same fees as they have in Vienna, which are twice as high as in Paris, then the future of airlines like ours would be jeopardised," said Christian Mandl, CEO of SkyEurope, a carrier planning to launch regular flights from Bratislava to Paris, London and Rome in summer this year, and regular cheap flights from Bratislava to Košice next year.


Slovak carriers have said if Vienna airport buys a stake in Bratislava airport, the domestic industry may suffer.
photo: TASR

News that Bratislava airport could be partially privatised in the near future has struck fear into existing and potential carriers in Slovakia over the possible influence that Vienna's Schwechat airport, were it to take a stake, might have on Slovak air transport.

The Austrian hub has long talked of its interest in Bratislava's M.R. Štefánik airport, which is only 60 kilometres distant. Following Transport Minister Jozef Macejko's March 22 announcement that he would like to see the Slovak capital's airport partially privatised, carriers voiced concern that Vienna's involvement in a sale, even partial, could result in the larger Schwechat using Štefánik to boost its own capacity and ignore the needs of Slovak carriers.

"Vienna airport is a strong candidate [if a tender for privatisation were called], but if the object of their investment was to impose the same fees as they have in Vienna, which are twice as high as in Paris, then the future of airlines like ours would be jeopardised," said Christian Mandl, CEO of SkyEurope, a carrier planning to launch regular flights from Bratislava to Paris, London and Rome in summer this year, and regular cheap flights from Bratislava to Košice next year.

At the moment, the only regular international flights from Bratislava airport are with the Czech ČSA to Prague, and with the Slovak national carrier, Slovenské aerolínie (SA), to Moscow. Austria's Tyrolean Air and Russia's Aeroflot also operate minor routes. Schwechat, on the other hand, has 53 airlines flying scheduled flights.

The greater traffic volume at Schwechat has inevitably created a large gap in the number of passengers handled at the two facilities. Bratislava airport in 2000 handled 300,000 passengers, while Vienna had 11.9 million.

"We believe that the priority today is first to increase passenger traffic, as this would also increase the value of the airport," said Mandl. "Privatisation can come at a later stage."


Bratislava's M.R. Štefánik airport could handle more traffic if taxes were lowered, airlines say.
photo: Ján Svrček

Unclear direction

The plans for Bratislava airport's privatisation are part of a wider transformation project for Slovakia's five international-rated airports. The project envisages a two-phase process, in which the five airports, which are now owned exclusivly by the state, would first be transferred to joint ownership between municipalities and the state.

"In the second phase [of transformation], the state could either sell part of its shares in airports or increase the basic capital with another investor taking part," Macejko said. The ministry expects to have projects for all five airports drawn up, as well as a foreign investor for Bratislava airport named, by the beginning of July 2002.

But Slovak carriers have expressed fears over what direction the airport would take under a new owner. Both Mandl and SA head Pavol Mladý said that the privatisation would create uncertainty as to what rules would be set by an investor regarding airport fees and the number of flights a carrier would have at Štefánik airport.

However, Anna Ghannamová, spokesperson for the Transport Ministry, said that by the time the identity of any investor into the airport were known, perhaps by June this year, major Slovak legislation on airport taxes and fees - something air carriers have complained bitterly about (see sidebar this page) - would have been cancelled or softened.

Even so, Mladý said, Vienna airport particularly, as an investor into Bratislava, might put a brake on the development of the airport, and limit the use of Štefánik's two runways for its own purposes. "Neither of these things would be in the interests of the development of air traffic in Slovakia, and neither would bring about a decrease in airport fees," Mladý said.

But officials at Schwechat played down the threat that it would deal with its current lack of capacity by using Bratislava's runways for its own purposes were it to become a partner in Bratislava airport.

"Bratislava definitely wouldn't be a subsidiary airport to the Schwechat airport. It has its own potential, and we are interested in bringing air traffic there, " said Wolfgang Gallipfl, project manager for Schwechat airport.

He added that Schwechat would treat Štefánik airport as a separate entity, and would deal with air carriers operating in Bratislava separately from those at Schwechat regarding promotion and airport charges. "Conditions in Bratislava are different than in Vienna, and therefore we can't apply the same measures there. We would definitely discuss our decisions with carriers there," he said.

Reviving industry

Macejko has said that the main aim of privatising the airports is to lift the air traffic industry in Slovakia out of its current doldrums (see sidebar this page). "The entry of investors into Bratislava airport will mean its capacity is used to a far greater extent than the current 20%," the minister explained.

However, SA's Mladý said that privatisation wouldn't solve the current woes of the Slovak air industry, which has not a single regular flight joining Bratislava with a major European hub.

"Privatisation of Slovakia's airports will not help the development of air traffic in Slovakia, and is therefore unnecessary," he said. "We support the transformation of airports to the ownership of municipalities and the state, but that's it. We need transformation, not privatisation".

He added that if the government were really interested in supporting air traffic in Slovakia, it should draw other carriers to Slovak skies, and consequently airports.

Deputy Transport Minister Michal Balog admitted that privatisation would not draw more passengers to Slovak airports. "Privatisation won't generate more passengers, which is our priority," he told The Slovak Spectator March 27.

Discussions on investor entry into Štefánik have already begun, Macejko revealed. Besides Schwechat, ministry officials confirmed that other potential investors had expressed an interest, including Frankfurt and Amsterdam Schiphol airports. Mandl said that if Vienna were to bid, SkyEurope might submit an offer as well.

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