Air Serbia is suspending flights between New York JFK and its hub in Belgrade until next month. The last flight will depart Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport today, Monday 23 September, and the next flight is not scheduled until 7 October.
In the meantime, the aircraft used on this route will be undergoing maintenance. Previously, Air Serbia leased replacement aircraft from its partner and part-owner Etihad while its own aircraft were out of operation. Air Serbia’s decision not to do so this time could be a signal of mixed performance on its signature long-haul route to New York JFK.
Air Serbia and New York JFK
The route between Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport and New York JFK is the only scheduled long-haul flight in Air Serbia’s network. The flight operates as JU500 and JU501 with an Airbus A330-202 registered as YU-ARA, which is Air Serbia’s only wide-body aircraft.
Together with the American Airlines service between the Croatian town of Dubrovnik and Philadelphia, JU500 is the only direct flight between USA and Ex-Yugoslavia.
The suspension is a first
The route is being suspended between 24 September and 6 October for regular maintenance. This is not the first time that Air Serbia is taking YU-ARA out of service for maintenance. However, it is the first time that the Serbian airline has not arranged a replacement aircraft for the route.
YU-ARA previously underwent scheduled maintenance in January this year. But unlike this time, the route was not suspended in January. Instead, as announced by Air Serbia at the time, a replacement Airbus A330 aircraft was leased from Etihad Airways.
Etihad is a part-owner in Air Serbia, and the two airlines have cooperated very closely in the past. Five months ago Air Serbia added a daily flight to London Heathrow from Belgrade so that Etihad did not lose the right to use the slots it owns and which were left vacant following the collapse of Jet Airways.
The fact that Air Serbia is not arranging a replacement this time is curious. The suspension of the route leaves the Serbian airline with no long-haul operations during one of the busiest months of the year.
Previous reports by Ex-Yu Aviation News revealed that Air Serbia is experiencing declining passenger numbers between Belgrade and New York JFK. Could this suspension be a signal that the route is not performing well?
Is the JFK route working out for Air Serbia?
There are several potential reasons why the New York to Belgrade route might not currently be working out for Air Serbia.
Firstly, Air Serbia has been operating this long-haul flight for three years, but it is yet to establish a single code-share agreement with any airline in North America. This makes it very difficult for the Serbian airline to capture a sizeable portion of the demand in the market between North America and Serbia (and the Balkans).
Passengers from North American cities other than New York are therefore flying to Belgrade via European hubs like Frankfurt and Zurich, and not transferring through New York JFK onto Air Serbia’s service to Belgrade.
Swiss International Airlines operates three daily flights between Belgrade and Zurich, and these are timed to fit Swiss’s North America arrival and departure waves. Lufthansa flies twice daily to Frankfurt and three times daily to Munich, all with aircraft of the Airbus A320 family.
Secondly, Air Serbia has been cutting short-haul frequencies and shifting its focus away from Belgrade in the past two years. This means it is offering fewer opportunities to passengers originating in New York to transfer through Belgrade to any of Air Serbia’s regional and long-haul services.
These include all the destinations that Air Serbia flies to but which have no direct links to New York, like Beirut, Thessaloniki, Larnaca, Krasnodar, and Malta.
Another potential problem for passengers could be that Air Serbia operates a single aircraft on this route. This makes flights more vulnerable to knock-on delays.
With no replacement on hand and a tight 6-weekly schedule that Air Serbia operates with a single aircraft to New York JFK in the peak summer months, the Airbus A330 has very little space to recover lost time. Passengers who know this might be reluctant to book this flight if they have a tight schedule.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Air Serbia is not a member of any alliance. This means passengers will not choose to fly from Belgrade to New York to either collect or redeem points from any of the world’s airline groups.
All these reasons might be contributing to Air Serbia’s signature long-haul route not reaching its full potential. Might we see more temporary suspensions on this route in the future?