Slovak air traffic continued to grow last year, despite the fact that the European trend was on the decline.
“The overall number of handled passengers at public international airports reached 2,301,767, which is a 10 percent increase compared to 2015,” said Karolína Ducká, spokesperson of the Ministry of Transport and Construction.
“Bilateral agreements with third countries open new opportunities for expanding the flight connections from Slovakia,” said Ducká, adding that Slovakia is an attractive destination from the point of view of the tourism and its geographical location.
In 2016, Bratislava, Košice and Poprad airports operated regular domestic and international flights. The airports in Sliač, Žilina and Piešťany took care of only irregular flights.
M. R. Štefánik Airport in Bratislava handled 1,756,808 passengers in 2016, a 12.3 percent increase compared to the previous year. Passenger number projections for 2017 are between 1,700,000 and 1,800,000 passengers.
Additionally, “In 2016, Bratislava airport operated 25,690 flights, a 4 percent increase; also the amount of cargo transport grew by 9 percent,” said Veronika Ševčíková, spokesperson of the airport.
Yet the positive development is driven mainly by the international airports, with Bratislava airport contributing more than 75 percent of the total passenger numbers in Slovakia.
Short on finances and runway
“Companies that operate the small international public airports have potential in the development of the tourism,” said Ducká, referring to the increasing number of international tourists.
The Transport Ministry actively supports the airport operating companies but is bound by the European regulations concerning state support of such companies.
“Based on the regulations, while taking into consideration the state budget, it is not easy to fund modernisation or construction of the airport infrastructure from the public resources,” Ducká said.
Each regional airport has specific problems that affect the operations and economic performance of the airport operating companies.
Piešťany airport is located in the region with the highest number of sunny days in Slovakia and it is well equipped for operation during the night or during bad weather conditions.
Despite its good location, the airport’s operating company is struggling to cover the costs of maintenance.
“Solving the financial situation is one of the priorities of each board meeting,” said František Varga, the executive director of Piešťany airport. Currently, the airport is holding talks with two potential investors.
There are no regular flights from the airport, partly caused by its location only 90 kilometres from the Bratislava airport.
“Piešťany airport is used mainly for flights by companies with business and manufacturing interests in the Považie region,” said Varga.
It also operates charter flights, often used by sport teams, and air cargo transport.
“In 2016, the situation did not allow the airport to guarantee travel agencies stable operation when planning the 2017 season,” said Varga, adding that it will take a lot of effort to succeed with regular flights in 2018.
Žilina airport also has the functionalities to operate during impaired weather conditions and it is located close to the planned connection of the D1 and D3 highway. It handles around 8,000 flights per year and is used predominantly for charter and private flights, but also for pilot training.
However, according to an official statement of the Žilina airport, the short runway – only 1,150 metres – does not allow economically better flights of bigger passenger aircraft.
Further development is conditional to the extension of the runway RWY, so that it will be suitable for Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 aircrafts, reads the official statement. In this way it will enable charter flights for the purpose of tourism.
Currently, there are negotiations to renew the direct route Žilina – Prague operated by ČSA, which was cancelled in 2012 due to under-utilised aircraft capacity.
Fluctuation of tourists
Preservation of the airports is within the interest of the Transport Ministry. Ducká explained that the situation of the regional airports could be helped by establishing a regular air connection or seasonal charter flights to various holiday destinations.
Adding new connections helped the Košice airport to become one of the fastest growing in Europe.
“We have an almost ideal mix of passengers,” said the marketing manager of the Košice airport, Juraj Tóth.
“During the summer season, people from eastern Slovakia fly to various sea destinations,” said Tóth, adding that the services of the low-cost carrier Wizz Air are used by all groups of travellers.
Apart from that, the exceptional offer of Turkish Airlines provides connections from Košice to almost 300 destinations around the world, with transfer in Istanbul.
Ducká already pointed out the potential of the regional airports in tourism.
“They can be one of the tools of development of the economy and tourism in the region,” said Ducká, adding that it would be a positive impulse for foreign tourists and investors to come to Slovakia. “However, the question of increasing the performance and improving the economic situation is mainly the competence of the management of the particular airports.”
Meanwhile, Poprad-Tatry airport is used mainly for tourism. In 2016, it handled 84,030 passengers.
“The highest number of travellers is on the regular line London-Poprad-London,” said Ivan Hečko, director of commerce and economy at Poprad-Tatry airport. “From among charter flights, the highest interest is in Burgas, Bulgaria.”
The airport operates regular lines to London and seasonal lines to Riga with an added landing in Warsaw for the winter season 2015/2016. During the summer of 2016, Poprad added flights to Araxos, Tirana and Tel-Aviv.
The connection to Tel-Aviv has been very successful.
“After many years, it was the first time that the airport Poprad-Tatry operated a summer charter connection for tourists from abroad to our region,” he said.
Travellers from this connection spent almost 10,000 nights in the region and according to the airport’s estimate, spent approximately €1 million, which Hečko considers a positive contribution for the region.
“The seasonal character of tourism is the main disadvantage,” said Hečko, adding that it causes rises and falls in operation.
The airport in Sliač also experienced a 35 percent decline in passenger numbers last year as compared to 2015. Board chairman of the airport Roland Schaller attributes it to the geopolitical development in the target destinations.
“Currently we are focusing on three segments of irregular air traffic: flights to holiday destinations, transport of business and trade subjects, and air cargo,” said Schaller, adding that the main disadvantage is not fully utilising the airport in regular civil aviation.
He also pointed out that civil aviation is part of the mixed operation of the original military airport.
“Due to its mixed character, the airport is also used for the transport of the military officials of Slovakia and NATO,” Schaller said.
In the near future, the airport wants to establish a regular line in cooperation with the regional government and businesses.
In 2017, the Poprad airport is looking to to further develop the routes to Tel-Aviv and Kiev, and add one more regular line.
The situation in Piešťany is more pessimistic.
“In 2016, the situation did not allow the airport to guarantee travel agencies stable operation for 2017,” said Varga, adding that it will take a lot of effort to succeed with regular flights in 2018.