On 30 August 2019, I flew with Croatia Airlines from their hub in Zagreb Airport (full name Franjo Tuđman Airport Zagreb) to London Heathrow. I have been flying this route for years so the review below includes historical references to how the service on this route has changed.
Croatia Airlines is the national carrier of Croatia, a country currently best known for its tourist offering. Croatia Airlines operates under codes CTN and OU. The airline was founded in 1989, and at several points this year it held promotional events for its 30th birthday.
As is evident from all the airlines that codeshare on this flight between Zagreb and London Heathrow, Croatia Airlines is a Star Alliance member.
The flight is operated as OU490 but also marketed by Air India (AI7504), Asiana Airlines (OZ9384), Singapore Airlines (SQ2402) and Air Canada (2979). On Wednesdays, OU490 departs several hours earlier so it is also marketed by United Airlines (UA7279) because it connects on United’s late afternoon departure wave from London Heathrow.
The controversial history of OU490
Up until 2017, Croatia Airlines had been flying to London Heathrow nine times weekly for more than two decades. That was until it sold five of its nine Heathrow slots to Delta Airlines in January 2017 for $19m, as reported by Večernji List at the time.
The slot sale produced a heated debate in Croatia, with analyst Alen Šćurić calling it a “robbery of national assets” on Tango Six.
I was on one of the last flights to Heathrow during the Croatia Airlines 2017 summer schedule. That was the last schedule the airline operated with nine slots.
The pricing structure for this flight was very different back when Croatia Airlines had nine slots. I had purchased a one-way ticket for £52 ($63) just two months before departure for a flight on a Friday during the October school holidays.
Now, one-way tickets start at £135 ($164). It is evident that Croatia Airlines is aiming to make more revenue per flight on its Zagreb to London Heathrow route now that it reduced capacity by so much.
Before the flight
For the flight I am reviewing today, which is a return leg, I paid £130 ($158). As I always fly from Croatia to London on the last Friday of August I bought the ticket as soon as it was released, 360 days ago. Base ticket prices have since gone up and it is no longer possible to buy return tickets so cheaply.
Croatia Airlines follows a fairly simple pricing strategy. As is evident from the Google Flights data below, the airline incrementally puts up prices as more and more tickets are purchased. This is reflected in the price going up in steps over time.
The flight sold out seven days before departure, though one business class ticket was put on sale again two hours before departure, presumably because someone failed to check-in.
I arrived at Zagreb Airport by Uber. The terminal building is new, in operation since 2017.
Zagreb Airport has one of the highest combinations of landing fees and airport taxes in Europe, so for a European capital of this size, it does not actually have many flights.
There is not a single easyJet, Ryanair or Wizz Air flight scheduled from Zagreb, not even seasonally. In fact, Ryanair never flew there, while the other two discontinued services to Zagreb years ago, citing high fees.
The airport has no LCC link to the United Kingdom or Ireland. Only British Airways and Croatia Airlines fly to London (Heathrow), while Croatia Airlines also flies to Dublin.
Our aircraft today is an Airbus A319. It arrived from Lisbon at 3.40pm, well ahead of our scheduled departure time of 5.50pm.
But we still departed late because many passengers on our flight were connecting from the Croatia Airlines flight from Dubrovnik, which arrived late. Instead of 5.15pm, the flight arrived at 6pm. Our actual departure was 6.30pm, 40 minutes behind schedule, due to connecting passengers.
This was a fully booked flight. In fact, it was overbooked, so the business class was reduced to two rows only while the third business class row had no free seats and six passengers in total.
Every Croatia Airlines flight I have ever been on has featured the pilot giving a very detailed intercom announcement. It always consists of an explanation for why there has been a delay and a country-by-country overview of the flight path.
Refreshments were served immediately after seatbelt signs had been switched off. I always ask for, and always get, three drinks: a wine, a juice, and water. For food, we were served Istrian salami, arancini and sour biscuits with Dalmatian herbs.
Just like with food, Croatia Airlines promotes Croatia on TV screens too. Promotional movies keep playing for the duration of the flight.
The flight landed at 7.30pm, but we did not reach our gate until 8pm due to a long episode of taxiing and then waiting for Heathrow ground staff to secure the aircraft. The return flight departed for Zagreb at 9pm, which is a whole hour late.
Unfortunately, this is not unusual as Croatia Airlines averages a 40-60 minute delay on its flight from London Heathrow to Zagreb. Some things just don’t change.