Last week, on Friday 7th June, an American Airlines flight AA148 took off from Philadelphia International Airport heading for Dubrovnik. The Boeing 767 landed in the coastal Croatian city the next day. To American Airlines this is just one of nine new European routes of this summer season. But for Croatia, flight AA148 is of immense significance.
The war that destroyed aviation
In 1990 Croatians voted in a referendum to split off from Yugoslavia, a country in which Croatia was a republic since 1945. This split triggered a four-year war that destroyed a quarter of the Croatian economy. The domestic airline industry experienced particularly significant losses.
Foreign carriers rapidly deserted the country, and many have never come back. Only in the last few years did Croatian airports begin again to experience passenger numbers as high as in 1990.
Flight AA148 comes after years of local effort
The Director of the Dubrovnik Tourist Board said in conversation with The Dubrovnik Times that the Board had been “working intensively on the US market for years”. Alen Šćurić once reported on TangoSix that Turkish Airlines had approached Croatia Airlines twice hoping to launching direct flights between Zagreb and New York. The Croatian Tourist Board and the Ministry for Tourism have been publicly saying for years that they are working on establishing direct flights to North America.
Yugoslavia used to have links to North America
The Croatian desire for transatlantic routes is strong. The national carrier, Croatia Airlines, has no long-haul routes and is struggling to turn a profit. It acts predominantly as a feeder to Lufthansa Group. This way it funnels traffic towards North America that remains unserved by direct routes.
In 1986, Zagreb was linked to Toronto, Montreal, New York and Chicago, according to Routesonline. By 1988, Yugoslavia was also linked with Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington D.C and Vancouver. All these routes were served by Yugoslavia’s national carrier, JAT. However, all these routes were terminated when the Yugoslav wars broke out.
Recent developments have been positive
It wasn’t until 2016 that Croatia was connected to North America again, when Air Transat launched seasonal flights to Zagreb. Two years later, Air Canada Rouge followed. This summer the two carriers operate up to seven weekly flights for most of the summer.
Before 2016, only Qatar Airways had long-haul flights to Croatia, to Zagreb. Then the government set a strategic aim to attract long-haul fights, as previously reported by Simple Flying. Zagreb Airport opened a new terminal. Within three years Emirates, Korean Air, Qatar, Air Transat and Air Canada launched flights to Zagreb. American Airlines and flyDubai launched flights to Dubrovnik.
The significance of AA148
The arrival of American Airlines will serve as a test not just for Dubrovnik Airport but for Croatia as a market. Other American carriers are likely to follow closely the developments with this route. American Airlines originally scheduled Dubrovnik as a three times a week service from early June until the end of September. But since then it has upgraded the service to four times a week in September. The outbound flights on the last two Saturdays in June sold out even before the first flight of the season had taken off.
If the route proves as much of success as Dubrovnik Airport anticipates, we can expect more frequencies on this route in peak season next summer. Perhaps we can even expect United to launch flights to Croatia. As a Star Alliance member, United currently code-shares on several dozen daily connections to Croatia, on flights operated by Lufthansa Group and Croatia Airlines.
Regardless of the future implications of this route, last week’s landing of American Airlines flight AA148 to Dubrovnik is an achievement the Croatian Tourist Board will rightfully celebrate.