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UNDAUNTED BY SMALL MARKET, SLOVAK AIRLINES AIMS TO FLY NEXT YEAR

Airline or albatross? Ministry wants a national carrier

The Ministry of Transportation says it wants a national airline off the ground by next summer, but whether Slovak Airlines - as the country's future national carrier is already known - can make a buck in the country's small airline market is cloudy at best. "Every state needs to represent itself with its own airline if possible," said Peter Matejčík, the new general director of the Ministry of Transportation's Civil Aviation Department. "I am not able to tell you when a decision will be made, but I can say that we want the first Slovak national airline to be ready by the next summer season. This is our plan; the reality may be different, but this is how we want it to be."

The Ministry of Transportation says it wants a national airline off the ground by next summer, but whether Slovak Airlines - as the country's future national carrier is already known - can make a buck in the country's small airline market is cloudy at best.

"Every state needs to represent itself with its own airline if possible," said Peter Matejčík, the new general director of the Ministry of Transportation's Civil Aviation Department. "I am not able to tell you when a decision will be made, but I can say that we want the first Slovak national airline to be ready by the next summer season. This is our plan; the reality may be different, but this is how we want it to be."

While the Ministry's wish for a national airline seems definite, how it intends to make Slovak Airlines competitive with veteran carriers such as British Airways, which announced last month that it wants to run regular flights between Bratislava and London, is a matter Matejčík said is for Slovak Airlines to decide. But he conceded that it will "definitely need help from the state."

Matejčík was also vague about ticket fares on the proposed national airline, saying that they will be state-regulated, but "the price will depend largely on the quality of service [the airline] offers, and the customers it gets."

Market share

Asked who those customers would be, Matejčík said the government hopes to attract about ten percent of the estimated 500,000 Slovaks who flew foreign carriers last year. "By the year 2000, we're expecting the percentage to go even higher." But whether the market Slovak Airlines is banking on is mature enough yet to deliver profits is doubted by at least one major carrier.

British Airways is looking to offer Bratislava to London service "as soon as we possibly can," according to Mike Dunkerley, BA's director for the Czech and Slovak Republics. But, he added, the airline is not going to make that commitment until "the number and type of passengers - business passengers - reaches a level where we can cover our costs."

"There are already enough passengers coming out of Bratislava," said Michaela Ferfecká, BA's marketing manager for the Czech and Slovak Republics, "but they are not flying business class, and therefore not spending enough for us to justify a new route. This is still a very price-sensitive market."

Given those market conditions, Matejčík said the new airline would supplement its passenger service by helping to speed up international cargo and mail delivery service.

From Fatra to national

Matejčík confirmed that the transportation ministry is negotiating with a private airline formerly known as Fatra Air, whose board of directors named Miroslav Kaličiak as the re-christened company's general director on September 1. Kaličiak now faces the challenge of converting his small private carrier into Slovakia's first flagship airline.

"This is a great opportunity for Slovak aviation," Kaličiak told The Slovak Spectator. "Before, the government's attitude was, 'You are all private companies; this is none of our business.' Our proposal to the government is to start as a private company with some smaller activities, but our main aim is to be a national carrier."

On that note Matejčík once more sounded cautious. "[This is] just a plan the government is discussing. It's still too soon to say how much assistance the new airline will need from the state. Mr. Kaličiak may talk about his ideas, but whether [those ideas] are really going to happen or not, we'll have to see."

When asked when Slovak Airlines would turn a profit, Matejčík threw the ball to Kaličiak's firm, which, he said, "should put together a plan that shows it can earn a profit." "It's hard to discuss the details when the proposal hasn't been discussed by the whole government," Matejčík added.

Asked what other ministries would participate in a final decision on the airline, Matejčík said the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of the Economy both needed to be consulted.

The Russian connection

Matejčík confirmed that in August, the general director of the Russian airline Aeroflot, Yevgeny Shapostnikov, met with top managers in the Slovak aviation industry, Transportation Minister Alexander Rezeš, and Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. Matejčík also confirmed that Russia's Tupelov aviation factory will provide Slovak Airlines with Tupelov 154 aircrafts in yearly installments over a period of several years.

"We talked [with Shapostnikov] about a promise of cooperation between Aeroflot and Slovak Airlines, as well as cargo transport," Matejčík said. "Aeroflot's aim is to use Slovakia as a transportation hub with Moscow."

Asked how the airplanes would be obtained, Matejčík tried to walk a fine line by first denying that they would be bartered to alleviate Russia's huge debt to Slovakia, but then confirming that the aircrafts' price tag would be taken off Russia's debt. Countering sources in the industry who suggested that the planes would be delivered on a barter basis to write off Russia's debt to Slovakia, Matejčík said the ministry has discussed buying aircrafts from Russia, but that the price would be deducted from Russia's total debt.

Rickety Tupelovs

Asked if the Tupelovs could compete with most Western air carriers, Bohuslav Huraj, general director of Tatra Air, a private airline in Slovakia, told The Slovak Spectator that Czech Airlines' successful integration of the Tupelov with cutting-edge aviation technology from the U.S. and France suggested that this could be done. "Most maintenance programs [for the Czech-flown Tupelovs] are done by computer, which before was not one of the more obvious features of Russian technology," Huraj said.

A source at Tatra Air who requested anonymity warned that if Tupelovs are incorporated in Slovak Airlines' fleet, owing to the Russian manufacturer's reputation for sub-standard performance and safety design, the planes would probably be reserved for hauls between Bratislava and Moscow. Flying Russian-manufactured planes in the opposite direction would, the source said, be a public relations "disaster" for a national Slovak air-carrier.

Matejčík was defensive about the Tupelovs. "I would ask you what specifically you are asking about these aircrafts," Matejčík said. "I would say that Aeroflot has good technology -no worse than the technology of Western countries' airlines."

"Russia is [currently] trying to renew its aircraft industry," the ministry's civil air division head continued. "Russia knows what kind of problems it has with its image [in aircraft technology], but I don't think that belongs in an article about Slovak Airlines."

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