We previously described Air Serbia as one of only three successful Etihad partnerships. The Serbian flag carrier will become even stronger this year as a result of several highly fortunate circumstances coming together for the airline. It is launching 21 new routes this summer season, and is also opening a second base in its home country. These will see Air Serbia advance its position as the dominant carrier in the region of former Yugoslavia.
First came a planned expansion
In January, the airline announced the first wave of new routes. Air Serbia has been cutting routes and frequencies since 2016 but decided to reverse this trend this year. This comes following a change of CEO last year and a loosening of ties with Etihad.
Of the routes announced in this wave of expansion, seven are year-round (Barcelona, Cairo, Helsinki, Krasnodar, Kiev, Madrid and Rijeka). Two are seasonal (Nice and Zadar). Air Serbia will operate them all out of Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport.
At the time of the announcement, the airline had some spare capacity in its fleet as it had been downsizing in 2017 and 2018. But, this was still not enough to cater for the planned new routes. Thus, Air Serbia agreed to lease a CRJ900 from Nordica. The CRJ is now scheduled to operate the newly launched routes and some of the existing ones.
Jet Airways collapse benefits Air Serbia
Air Serbia’s second wave of expansion this year came unexpectedly, thanks to Jet Airways suspending all operations in April. Air Serbia was not the only airline to benefit from this, as Simple Flying previously reported.
When this happened, all of Jet Airways’ Heathrow slots were returned to Etihad who then found itself looking for something to do with them. With little need to acquire all three for its own purposes in the context of its cutbacks, and due to Heathrow’s ‘use it or lose it’ slot policy, Etihad expressly struck an undisclosed deal to give the evening slot pair to Air Serbia.
But Air Serbia was already set to use its spare aircraft capacity to launch the new routes announced in January, and the evening slot pair it was given contains a widebody turnaround time of 2 hours 25 minutes. So Etihad provided Air Serbia with one of its parked A320s in May in a wet-lease agreement, solely for this daily rotation.
Thus, Air Serbia found itself with seven new weekly flights. It also found itself with a new addition to its fleet. Interestingly, on Saturdays and Sundays Air Serbia will have two flights departing for Heathrow within ten minutes of one another. One will leave Belgrade Nikola Tesla at 4.05 and the other at 4.15.
Air Serbia started using the slots pretty much immediately, in May. This is less than a month after Jet Airways stopped all operations.
A brand new PSO for Air Serbia
The last fortunate circumstance is perhaps controversially fortunate. The Serbian government set up a brand new PSO in March this year for the launch of 12 new routes from Serbia’s only other operational airport, Niš Constantine the Great. Air Serbia was the only airline to apply.
It is possible that the Serbian government designed the public tender deliberately for the benefit of its flag carrier. Several of the PSO eligibility requirements were described as “truly strange” by one of the region’s most prominent aviation analysts, Alen Ščurić, writing on Tango Six Portal. These include the requirement for the applying airline to have one backup aircraft based in Serbia. It must also have 15 Serbian-speaking call centre staff with two years of experience each.
The public tender that Air Serbia won will see it launch 12 new routes from Niš in July. These are Baden Baden, Bologna, Budapest, Frankfurt Hahn, Friedrichshafen, Gothenburg, Hanover, Ljubljana, Nuremberg, Rome, Salzburg and Tivat. The airline has leased an A319 previously operated by Royal Brunei Airlines on a long-term basis for these routes.
The launch of these 21 new routes will see Air Serbia operating 60 routes in total this summer. At the same time, the airline is increasing frequencies on its existing routes, not just on the London Heathrow route. Moreover, it will operate a significant number of charter flights through its Aviolet charter branch this summer too.
It is looking to be a remarkable year for Air Serbia.