Flying with Captain Fico

NO ONE entertains the delusion that Bratislava airport will some day be one of the region’s strategic air hubs. The M.R. Štefánik airport is too small for that, but many still hope to see it grow.

NO ONE entertains the delusion that Bratislava airport will some day be one of the region’s strategic air hubs. The M.R. Štefánik airport is too small for that, but many still hope to see it grow.

The number of air passengers in the EU surged recently, reaching 740 million in 2006. Romania, with a 35-percent increase year-on-year, and Slovakia, 34 percent, experienced the highest growth that year, according to a Eurostat release from December 14, 2007.

But despite this influx of passengers, Slovakia definitely does not rank near the top of the chart in terms of how much it invests into its primary airport. Alms thrown sparingly from the state coffers hardly offer little more than a touch-up job.

The government proudly reported on January 16 that it has ambitious plans for the airport, and will expand it using only state resources.

In fact, the Fico cabinet has already ruled out using a joint venture between the airport and a strategic partner to finance development.

This is because Fico demands that the state maintain full control over its possession, like a child who refuses to give away its pet even though it doesn’t know how to feed it.

Last December, Transport Minister Ľubomír Vážny took a page straight out of Fico’s flight manual when he said that privatising the airport would be the worst possible solution to its ailments. And even if a joint venture were cleared for take off, Vážny continued, the state would be sure to keep a majority stake in it.

None of this came as a surprise.

One of the first things the Fico government did upon taking the pilot’s seat in 2006 was force an emergency landing of the sale of its 66-percent stake in Bratislava airport to the TwoOne consortium.

The rationale for this was not only that the Mikuláš Dzurinda government had manufactured the Sk20 billion deal with a consortium made up of the Slovak private equity group Penta, Vienna airport and Austria’s Raiffeisen Zentralbank, but Fico’s conviction that the state, after years of being just a co-pilot, was ready to plot its own course.

However, the to-be investor had pledged to expand Bratislava airport’s existing terminal immediately after the takeover and construct a new terminal by 2009. Only privatisation could have resuscitated it that much, that quickly.

Still, Fico defends his actions as a policy of developing state property, not getting rid of it, as the previous government did.

Previous governments also labeled the airport a property of “strategic importance”, but, unfortunately, none of them treated it as such, since air transportation has never been deemed a top priority.

However, experts are now warning that the lack of infrastructure and space at M.R. Štefánik airport will continue to discourage airlines from choosing Bratislava as a destination. Last year, several media reported that the growth in air passengers traveling through Bratislava had dipped, or even stagnated. But the Transportation Ministry brushed those concerns under the carpet with this simple phrase: it is not as unambiguous as it seems.

The estimated costs of constructing a terminal is Sk8.6 billion, with additional engineering and design projects requiring another Sk157 million.

Last June, the country’s most popular tabloid, Nový Čas, reported that Bratislava airport had solved some of the pressure put on it by erecting a temporary tent outside its terminal. Apart from being another of the tabloid’s sensational headlines, the image of passengers shuffling through a party tent couldn’t better express just how dire the situation truly is.

The Košice airport, which has gained new prominence since Slovakia’s entry to the Schengen zone, already has a private investor – Consortium TwoOne. Since buying a majority share of the airport in October 2006, it has spent more than Sk150 million to develop it.

But Fico’s pet transportation project is the cross country highways that he has promised will be completed by the end of his first term in office. To achieve that, he put his suspicion of investors aside and agreed to use PPP projects.

Maybe if he were told a new hall at the airport would win him the adoration of a whole new legion of voters, the development would happen in a flash. But for the average traveler, it doesn’t matter what game the politicians are playing. They just don’t want to have to check in under a tent.

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