Experts suggest a common airline for the Western Balkans

12/04/2012

Proponents say it would mean cheaper fares and direct connections.

By Muhamet Brajshori for Southeast European Times in Pristina -- 12/04/12

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More flights are being added to service the Serbian, Croatian and Kosovo markets. [Reuters]

Andrea Dimitrov, a traveler from Bulgaria, is killing time at Tirana Airport. His connecting flight to get home is through Vienna, roughly 800km out of his way.

"It is through Vienna because there is no direct flight, and the ticket is enormously expensive. I paid 370 euros; I could get a cheaper one from Sofia to London," Dimitrov said.

Overall, the global financial crisis has meant lean times for airlines, and the Western Balkans has proved to be no exception. While some countries like Serbia have state-owned carriers, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia have fully privatised theirs or have retained holdings in carriers, such as Croatian Airlines and Adria Airways. The relatively small market and number of carriers has some experts calling for a common airline able to service the whole region.

"If the national carriers merge into a regional one, it would offer stability in the market, decrease prices for passengers, and [encourage] fair competition towards the bigger European airlines present in the market," Dritan Keliu an economics professor and head of the Balkan Centre for Economy and Trade, told SETimes.

As of now, Albania's only operating airline is BelleAir, a private company. In November 2011, the Albanian Civil Aviation authority revoked the license of Albanian Airlines to prevent it from being added to a list of carriers that are banned by the EU. The airline had been privatised little more than two years earlier.

In Serbia, the government has tried repeatedly to privatise national carrier JAT Airways, but without success. The biggest regional carrier remains Turkish Airlines, which is increasing service in the Western Balkans.

Ali Genc, Turkish Airlines senior vice president for media relations, told SETimes that the airline has introduced two flights per day to Belgrade, ten weekly flights to Pristina, Skopje, Tirana and to Sarajevo, and plans to add an extra flight to Podgorica for the summer travel season.

"We are co-operating with many partners in the Balkan region," said Genc. "We are always ready to co-operate with any partner who can undertake our service quality."

"[Currently,] we fly to all capital cities in the Balkans. We are a fast growing company and we are expanding our business all around the world, as well as in the Balkan region. We have made great progress in the region which can be seen by looking into the numbers," Genc added.

He says that the Balkan market is very tough. "There is no market depth and the market is very price-sensitive. The positive fact about the region is that there is a steady growth in the market. Nearly 80% of the market direction is to the west. With our new network pattern we aim to get more share from this market and we are seeing some progress," Genc said.

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Keliu says that the Serbian, Croatian and Kosovo markets are seeing an increase in flights.

"Croatia as a tourist destination, while Kosovo and Serbia -- because of the huge Diaspora living abroad -- are seeing a huge increase of flights. Pristina Airport for many is a way to go now to Macedonia or Albania because of the distance to those countries."

Kosovo is the only country in the region without a private or government-owned carrier, which enables the different companies that fly to Pristina to control the fares.

Blerim Meta, a doctor living in Germany, told SETimes that he would choose a Kosovo airline if it were an option. "It would control the prices and Kosovo's Diaspora would send the money for tickets directly to Kosovo, not somewhere else."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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