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BRATISLAVA AIRPORT IS WELL PLACED TO COMPLEMENT VIENNA, BUT BUILDING BRIDGES HAS BEEN SLOW

Cleared for takeoff?

IN LATE April, Bratislava regional government officials, Vienna city and regional administrators, and the Vienna Airport company announced a European Commission-backed project to link the airports of the neighbouring capitals in a single system ahead of the implementation of the EU's Schengen border in 2006.
Once the Schengen agreement is fully in place, the EU's frontier will extend to Slovakia's border with Ukraine, eliminating customs and immigration controls to the west, and greatly increasing the speed of road and rail connections between the Austrian and Slovak capitals.
"The aim of the [Bratislava] regional government is to increase the number of direct destinations from the Bratislava airport and make it possible for Austrian citizens to fly from there as well," said Roman Filistein, head of Bratislava regional government's transportation commission.


SCHWECHAT's flight planner ignores neighbouring Bratislava.
photo: Vienna Airport

IN LATE April, Bratislava regional government officials, Vienna city and regional administrators, and the Vienna Airport company announced a European Commission-backed project to link the airports of the neighbouring capitals in a single system ahead of the implementation of the EU's Schengen border in 2006.

Once the Schengen agreement is fully in place, the EU's frontier will extend to Slovakia's border with Ukraine, eliminating customs and immigration controls to the west, and greatly increasing the speed of road and rail connections between the Austrian and Slovak capitals.

"The aim of the [Bratislava] regional government is to increase the number of direct destinations from the Bratislava airport and make it possible for Austrian citizens to fly from there as well," said Roman Filistein, head of Bratislava regional government's transportation commission.

"In practice, it could also mean that travellers check their bags and pick up their boarding passes in Bratislava and fly out of Vienna. The rail connections at both airports makes possible a fast transfer [between them]," said Filistein.

The most recent announcement, however, belies the slow pace of change within Slovakia's civil aviation sector, say aviation experts.

Too little traffic

Bratislava airport authorities have decided that they will not require passengers to fill out arrival cards as a preventative measure against the SARS virus. As there are no flights to the Slovak capital's Milan Rastislav Štefánik airport from locations deemed at risk, existing measures to prevent the spread of the illness are enough, explained airport officials on May 19.

There is probably not much reason to fear - there is scant air traffic in the country, and by the end of its first year of operations in February 2003, privately-owned low-cost carrier SkyEurope, with three 30-seat aircraft, had become Slovakia's dominant airline.

Other than SkyEurope's 13 destinations, including London and Paris from this summer, there are few regular international flights from Bratislava, among them Prague, Kiev, and Moscow. Instead, those travelling abroad from Slovakia generally use Vienna's already congested Schwechat airport, just 60 kilometres from the Slovak capital.

Although Bratislava's proximity to Schwechat combined with considerably lower wage and fee levels were key reasons behind SkyEurope's decision to place its hub at Štefánik airport, building bridges between the two facilities has proved slow.

"I have been hearing since 1993 about cooperation [between Bratislava's Štefánik airport and] Schwechat, but I still haven't heard how Vienna specifically proposes to develop traffic at Bratislava," said Michal Vicanek, president of the Montreal-based Airport Planning Associates, part of a team that began putting together an aviation restructuring plan for Slovakia in 1992.

Their plan was adopted by then-transport minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and made a government priority as early as 1994, said Vicanek, but little progress was made during the 1994-1998 Vladimír Mečiar era, and only slightly more after Dzurinda became prime minister in 1998.

"The lack of funding and existing regulatory framework has not been conducive to the effective development of traffic at Bratislava airport. As a result, today a larger portion of potential air traffic is routed through Vienna," said Vicanek.

At the moment, the only direct connection between the airports is a shuttle bus operated by SkyEurope, which has partly based its business on luring travellers from Schwechat to Bratislava with discounted fares. Highway and rail connections are in development.

The trip between the two airports now takes around 90 minutes, but once border controls are removed, travel time will only be around 60 minutes, roughly the same as that between London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

Defining the partnership

Despite an aborted lawsuit against SkyEurope last fall, and coming under fire earlier this year for suggesting that Bratislava could absorb some of Vienna's cargo operations, Schwechat executives say they are open to broad cooperation with Štefánik.

"In no way are we aspiring to transfer only freight transport from Vienna to Bratislava - that would be economically unreasonable," said Kurt Waniek, chairman of the Vienna Airport board, to the weekly Trend in late March.

"Overall, we are speaking about market support for desired destinations and frequencies as the main strategic goals for the Bratislava airport.

"It is unreasonable if a large share of Slovak passengers fly from Schwechat. It would be more understandable if travellers from Slovakia could fly more from Bratislava," said Waniek.

Schwechat officials also say that they do not see any commercial threat in increased traffic out of Bratislava.

"If Vienna loses 10,000 or 20,000 passengers per year, it is [a difference of] a tenth of a percent for Schwechat, but a 10 percent growth for Bratislava," said Hans Mayer, Schwechat spokesperson.

Nonetheless, the worldwide flight guide on Vienna airport's web page does not list Bratislava, though it does contain a number of central and eastern European cities, including Slovakia's second city, Košice.

A more efficient future?

Cooperation between the airports should receive a boost this year, however, as the Slovak Airport Authority (SSL) begins to dissolve itself into new companies, each running one of the country's six regional airports under the auspices of regional and local administrations in which the airports operate.

According to the Transport Ministry, Slovakia's two largest airports, Bratislava and Košice, will be spun off by the end of this year, while the other international airports under SSL administration - Piešťany in west Slovakia, Sliač in central Slovakia, and Poprad in east Slovakia - will be run by independent companies by the end of 2004.

The airport in northern Slovakia's Žilina already operates independently of the SSL, after the Letisko Žilina company, owned by local district and municipal governments, struck a 30-year lease deal on the facility with the Transport Ministry last November.

According to Vicanek, the devolution of the airport authority to local facilities will require each to respond better to commercial realities and local conditions instead of political pressures, but he added that Slovakia should not forgo continued state-level support to develop aviation.

"Once the border between Slovakia and the EU no longer exists, the Bratislava airport will be in a better position to attract passengers and cargo from Vienna.

"But I don't know of any example of a capital-city international airport the size of Bratislava's that was successfully developed without on-going financial support from the government," said Vicanek.

"The government must realise its commitments to maintain safe and efficient international operations. They cannot treat the airport as just another corporation that could go bankrupt," he said.

"I think [Slovak civil aviation authorities] are trying to please the EU a bit too much and are not fighting for what I would call 'logical and justifiable' exemptions from aviation regulations, which will have a serious, negative impact on their ability to develop new traffic at Bratislava," Vicanek added.

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