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.

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.

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

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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.

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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
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.

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Johnny C

Quite interesting to see this happen. Hopefully we will see reduction in fees and a more attractive package for airlines to add Zagreb to the list, as it is clear from their previous operators that there is an interest to serve the Croatian capital.

Zvonimir K.

…. and as it usually goes with concession contract in my country, if the air/passengers’ traffic is lower than stated in contract, the state is to pay up for the difference (many concession highway contracts are made on the same pattern). And concessionaire doesn’t care about boosting the passengers traffic because for then it doesn’t matter, they’ll get the money anyway. Ans yes, Bouygues did a sub lease on its concession to Turkish company…

klicko

There’s nothing to see or do in Zagreb and also why would people that go to coastal Croatia go over Zagreb instead of flying directly to Split or Dubrovnik?

Ed

Klicko,why wouldn’t they stop and have a look around the nation’s capital? there is lots to do and see in ZGB. You clearly have an aversion towards it or have been living under a rock.

Matt Saleh

Who knows how long it will take them to get rid of socialist mentality and corruption, until then they will be losers.

Ella

Croatian here, and absolutley agree. Goverment greed is ruining the young population who wants to travel, develop and progress.

Adrian

No directly flight to Stockholm only 2m a year.. ridiculous.. Its better to fly to Banja Luka and then rent a car to Zagreb..

Mil

I think Direct flighs into Zagreb would help. The past few times I have visted Croata, I have flown into Venice. It’s a 3 hr car ride to my destinatoin but it is a direct flight from JFK. I also live 20 minutes from the Rijeka air port . I prefer to drive then sit around waiting for connecting flights.

Josip

Croatian government had to be aware what are possible aftermaths of giving Zagreb Airport to a concessionaire. Since it obviously did not, now we have to deal with it.
From my point of view the best option would be to let Croatia Airlines go bankrupt and try to attract some low cost airlines to establish a base in Zagreb, something similar to Budapest Airport and Malev scenario.

Gary

No mention of any of the Russian airlines either in this.
I Croatia in the EU as well?
As the EU should be helping them out.
If not they should leave the EU and have a pack with Russia instead.
They always said that it may take awhile but some of the old Baltic States will go back to Russia.