Why Are Airlines Leaving The Croatian Capital, Zagreb?

The European country of Croatia is experiencing a boom in air traffic – but almost exclusively at its coastal airports. On the mainland, where the country’s capital city of Zagreb is located, passenger growth has been stagnating this year. And in 2020, the numbers are set to shrink.

Why Are Airlines Leaving The Croatian Capital, Zagreb?
Zagreb Airport’s new terminal – recently opened. Photo: VelikiMeshtar via Wikimedia

Passenger numbers are already low

According to the airport’s own statistics, Zagreb has handled 2.96 million passengers so far this year. In the same period last year, it handled 2.89 million passengers. This is a negligible increase of Zagreb Airport’s passenger growth. There are two reasons why this is a significant problem for Croatia and for the airport itself.

Firstly, the negligible growth comes during a period when Croatia is booming. Iberia keeps expanding year after year, direct flights to the USA have resumed after 28 years, and passenger growth is averaging 10% this year.

So Zagreb Airport is lagging far behind the growth rates of Croatia as a whole. But it is also lagging behind its European counterparts.

Zagreb Airport is Europe’s smallest capital

Zagreb Airport appears to be in a fairly privileged position. It is the only airport serving the Croatian capital and the only airport in the vicinity of the wider catchment area. But its passenger numbers are still comparably low.

At just 45 flights per day, Zagreb Airport is less busy than many of Europe’s secondary airports like Palermo, Hanover or Aberdeen. In Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, which is half the population size of Zagreb, air traffic is almost 50% higher.

Croatia Airlines A320 parked at Zagreb
An uneventful sight: only two planes present at the whole of Zagreb Airport. Photo: Jakov Fabinger, Simple Flying

Next year will be worse

In 2020, Zagreb Airport passenger numbers are actually set to shrink. Not a single new route has been announced. Not even by Croatia Airlines, which is based in Zagreb. Instead, the national carrier of Croatia will be receiving government grants to cover its operating losses.

Furthermore, there is a real risk that Ljubljana Airport might become a low-cost alternative to Zagreb in the future. Zagreb Airport is just two hours’ drive away from Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital that has been left with a serious lack of air connectivity since the demise of Adria Airways.

Which routes were cut?

Korean Air has converted its year-round service between Zagreb and Seoul to seasonal. CSA Czech Airlines has discontinued flights completely and Eurowings has discontinued ticket sales for flights from Zagreb to Berlin and Dusseldorf from March onwards. FlyDubai has significantly reduced the number of weekly flights for most of the winter period.

Furthermore, Eurowings will be operating flights to Hamburg for a shorter time period in the summer only, and Swiss Air has completely canceled its flights to Zurich.

Eurowings is the only LCC in Zagreb that flies there year-round. Photo: Tom Boon / Simple Flying

High fees

Eurowings previously cited high fees at Zagreb as a deterrent for introducing new routes. And now that it will cut the two routes mentioned above, it will only be serving Cologne and Stuttgart from Zagreb.

EasyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air do not serve Zagreb at all. EasyJet left the airport in 2014, also citing high fees.

The pattern of route cancellations is interesting too. Zagreb Airport offers incentives to airlines for new routes, and airlines make use of them. But as soon as the incentives stop and the airlines have to start paying full fees, they tend to pull out.

CSA Czech Airlines introduced year-round flights between Prague Václav Havel Airport and Zagreb in the summer of 2016. As it was a new route, the airline was given significant discounts on various charges. Discounts for winter operations were particularly high.

But, predictably, CSA Czech Airlines made use of the incentives for one winter and then discontinued winter services for 2017/18. Finally, in 2019 it also discontinued summer flights too and has now left the airport completely.

Similarly, Emirates operated daily flights to Zagreb for a single winter before pulling out of Zagreb completely, as did Korean Air. There is a clear pattern here: unless the airline is allowed not to pay full charges to the airport, it will leave as soon as the incentives package expires.

From January until June next year, Croatia will take its turn at EU presidency. And yet the country’s capital has only 14 airlines maintaining year-round routes, even during that period.