Following the 1993 split of the former Czechoslovakia, the Slovak air transport industry swelled at one point to fifty different airlines. In the last few months, however, the country has seen this sector cut back to two regional carriers - Air Slovakia and Air Transport Europe.
Knockout blows have recently been sustained by the the two former national carriers, Slovenské Aerolínie and Tatra Air - the former for murky operations and flying without a license and the latter for failing to pay a six year-old tax bill.
Tatra Air had its origins in a 1990 amendment to the aviation law which cancelled the monopoly of the massive Czechoslovak Airlines (ČSA). Following the change, Tatra Air was founded in 1991, operating two Saab 340B aircraft with a capacity of 35 passengers each and one JAK 40 for 22 people, which the company leased from the Slovak Interior Ministry.
Since 1991, the company has carried over 250,000 passengers on regular flights between the Czech and Slovak Republics and to western Europe.
However, due to unpaid custom duties and accumulated Value Added Tax on the imported Saabs, the company wound up owing the state 88 million Slovak crowns. With the Finance Ministry unwilling to rearrange or forgive the debt, Tatra Air is now on the verge of bankruptcy. The airline ceased operations on February 16 and asked the Slovak cabinet for a $4 million loan to bail it out.
The other major player, Slovenské Aerolínie, has a far more chequered history. Founded in 1995, the firm started operation only in May 1998 with three Russian TU 154 jets which had been imported to Slovakia as a payment of the Russian debt towards Slovakia.
According to Transport Minister Gabriel Palacka, despite the fact that each aircraft was worth only from three to six million dollars, $16.5 million was deducted from the Russian debt in each case.
Given the shady circumstances in which the airline gained its aircraft, as well as the firm's murky ownership relations, the Transport Minister cancelled Slovenské Aerolínie's status as a national air carrier by revoking its operating license on November 16, 1998.
The only Slovak carrier operating regular flights at the moment is Air Slovakia, which was founded in 1993. Air Slovakia focuses mainly on charter flights, but operates three regular routes to Tel Aviv, Larnak in Cyprus and Kuwait. The company flies with one Boeing 737 and annually carries up to 65,000 passengers.
The last airline now operating in Slovakia is Air Transport Europe, which flies a 76-seater TU 134 and a 17-seater L 410. The company only performs charter flights, but also has a fleet of helicopters which it uses for technical and construction work and air rescue activities.