St Petersburg Is Set To Become The New LCC Battle Ground

European low-cost carriers are lining up to start flying into St. Petersburg, setting up Russia’s second-biggest city as an emerging low-cost carrier battleground. It follows the Russian Government’s move to open up access to St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport.

Pulkovo Airport in St Petersburg is shaping up to be a new low-cost carrier battleground. Photo: Simple Flying.

A new open skies agreement at St. Petersburg

According to a report in Reuters yesterday, 25 December 2019, the Russian Government wants to boost tourist numbers in St. Petersburg. To help facilitate that, the government has introduced a partial open skies agreement over Pulkovo Airport, already approving 12 routes out of the airport, irrespective of whether bi-lateral air services agreements exist or not.

The move to open up access into St. Petersburg is part of a five-year trial. Foreign carriers will be allowed to fly in and out of the airport without landing in the country they are registered in. For example, Ireland’s Ryanair could fly from St. Petersburg to Stansted

The Russian Government is targeting low-cost carriers like Ryanair. Photo: Simple Flying.

The opening up of the skies over Pulkovo isn’t over yet. Rather, the Russian Government is steadily approving routes on a case by case basis. The owners of Pulkovo Airport have asked the Russian Government to approve 33 new routes. Subsequently, this will represent a remarkable liberalization of access to St. Petersburg. It is anticipated that passenger numbers through Pulkovo Airport will increase by 75% to 35 million passengers annually by 2025.

Russia’s Vice Premier Maxim Akimov, who has oversight of commercial aviation and airports, is a supporter of opening up access to Pulkovo Airport. He has said;

“We have never before attempted such levels of liberalisation for (foreign airline) competitors, but we realise the extent of support and development that this solution will offer to the city of St Petersburg.”

Europe’s low-cost carriers expressing interest

The initial move to open up access to St Petersburg is generating a lot of interest from Europe’s largest low-cost carriers. Ryanair, EasyJet and Wizz Air have all formally expressed interest in flying to St Petersburg.

It is expected that even more foreign carriers will apply to fly into St Petersburg. Opening access to St Petersburg on a route by route basis is a canny move by the Russian Government. It means it can specifically target origin and destination airports that are hubs for low-cost carriers. The idea behind the opening of the skies over Pulkovo is to stimulate tourism demand rather than facilitate business travel.

The move is expected to drive up passenger numbers at Pulkovo Airport. Photo: Dmitry Avdeev via Wikimedia Commons.

Altogether, the boss of Northern Capital Gateway, the company that owns Pulkovo Airport, is optimistic that the unprecedented access into Pulkovo will work well. In addition to Ryanair, EasyJet and Wizz Air, Leonid Sergeyev expects demand from other airlines to be high.

Russian carriers are dismayed at the move

Even though foreign carriers are reacting with interest, Russia’s home carriers are dismayed. This is because the new open skies agreement at Pulkovo Airport specifically targets foreign operators. Meanwhile, Russia’s airlines will have to wait for a minimum of five years. One unnamed head of a Russian airline told website RBC that;

“We are categorically against granting foreign companies an open skies regime in St Petersburg without Russian companies obtaining similar rights in states whose carriers will fly from Pulkovo to third countries.”

The Russian airline spokesperson has a point. This move by the Russian Government manifestly favors foreign carriers. However, the airline spokesperson also ignores the home ground advantages they have at Russian airports such as Pulkovo.

Ultimately, competition is a win for everybody. It stimulates passenger numbers, it will bring economic benefits to St Petersburg and wider Russia. Moreover, it will weed out inefficient and uncompetitive airlines – or at the very least force them to pick up their act. Additionally, for passengers, it means lower fares and more choice.