Belarusian aviation authorities boasted that in the spring of 2020, WizzAir will start regular flights from Budapest to Minsk. Although it is presented as a victory, I think it will actually be a failure.
I entirely support flights of European lowcost airlines to Belarus. My colleagues and I have been deliberately working on this for a year now.
Belarus remains the only state in Europe where no European, Turkish or Russian lowcost airline flies to. At the same time, according to various estimates, from 100,000 to 300,000 Belarusians fly via lowcost airlines annually through the airports of neighboring countries.
That is, up to 600,000 Belarusian passengers who get to Vilnius, Kyiv or Lviv from Belarus by land transport to fly through Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Polish airports (both directions). The country profits nothing from this. At the same time, all the regional airports of Belarus, taken together, transported a little over 100,000 passengers in 2018. Belarusian regional airports in Brest, Vitebsk, Gomel, Grodno, and Mogilev are loss-making.
Foreign tourists and investors, in turn, complain about the inaccessibility of Belarus and its regional tourist centers, in particular. The Ministry of Transport expressed its interest in attracting lowcost airlines to regional airports. Last year, the president gave such an order. At the same time, top Belarusian officials believe that lowcost flights will inevitably lead to the immediate bankruptcy of Belavia. And here, I must admit, they are right.
If foreign lowcost airlines are allowed to fly to Minsk from any city (as it is in Europe, Georgia, or partly Ukraine), Belavia is unlikely to withstand competition. And, perhaps, it will repeat the fate of the Lithuanian and Georgian airlines, which completely or partially left the market. Belarusian officials found themselves in a difficult situation: they need to fulfill the president’s order that way it doesn’t affect the national airline and budget.
The history of the development of lowcost airlines shows that if they start flying from regional airports (Girona and Reus in Spain, Wroclaw, Gdansk, Krakow in Poland, Kaunas in Lithuania, Constanta and Timosar in Romania), later they actively open flights from provincial cities. If from the start flights are carried out from the capital (Riga, Chisinau) then lowcost airlines have no interest in regional airports of the country.
My proposal to the government of Belarus a year ago was not to let lowcost airlines to Minsk and at the same time liberalize flights to regional airports. To begin with, as an experiment, at least two or three (Brest, Grodno and, possibly, Vitebsk). Opening regular flights of lowcost airlines to the regional airports would be a compromise solution, from which everyone would benefit.
- Belarus will partially bring Belarusian passengers flying through foreign airports to local ones. On average, a European provincial airport earns € 2 direct tolls and € 15 indirect income per passenger.
- Belarusian regional airports would finally come to life and become airports with regular flights.
- A sharp increase in passenger traffic at regional airports may not immediately break even, but it will reduce the losses several times.
- Foreign tourists would have a real opportunity to get to the regional tourist centers of Belarus. This is especially true for Brest, Belovezhskaya Pushcha, Grodno, Polesie, the Chernobyl zone.
- Regular flights of lowcost airlines to the cities of Belarus will contribute to a sharp increase in inbound tourism.
- Belarusian citizens will be able to use the services of the lowcost airlines, and at the same time, part of their expenses will stay in Belarus – at the airport, in a parking lot, cafes, duty-free shops.
- Studies by the European Commission conducted in the Eastern European member countries showed that regular airline flights to the city, ceteris paribus, significantly increase the region’s investment attractiveness for foreign investors.
- Regular flights would create hundreds of new jobs and provide a real addition to the region’s GDP. According to ICAO research, one job in the region’s aviation industry creates 5 jobs in other industries and one dollar turnover generates $ 2.5 in regional GDP.
- Moreover, Belavia won’t be affected by the opening of Grodno-London, Vitebsk-Hanover or Brest-St. Petersburg potential lowcost flights. The introduction of Moscow-Gomel flights by S7 airline is the most vivid example.
True, the scenario of low-cost entry into the regions has three obstacles:
- Lowcost airlines don’t like to fly to several different airports – to get the maximum of Belarusian passengers, they need to start flights from Minsk. They are ready to consider regions in only one case – if neither they nor their competitors will have this option.
- Air communication between Belarus and other countries is strictly regulated by bilateral agreements. There is no way for foreign airlines to fly from third countries. For example, Hungarian WizzAir or Irish Ryanair from Germany to Belarus.
- Belarusian officials and aviators believe that no matter where lowcost airlines will start their flights, the national carrier will significantly be affected.
Taking this into account, to arrange Minsk-Budapest flights was a way out. The president’s order was executed and it’s good for PR. However, at some point, the question about other directions would arise. And this is when lowcost airlines will have to be given a chance to fly to areas where there is a demand.
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Only it will be impossible to redirect the lowcost airlines to regional airports, since they will demand to meet their standards. In the worst-case scenario, they will simply stop flying to the country. The Belarusian aviation authorities are copying the “successful experience” of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, where several years ago WizzAir had the only flight from Budapest to Baku and Nursultan, respectively.
At the same time, WizzAir flies from Georgian Kutaisi to 40 airports in 19 countries, from Lviv to 10 airports in 6 countries, from Wroclaw to 15 airports in 10 countries. By letting lowcost airlines on its market, Belarus can take into account all the best and worst practices and maximize the benefits for itself and passengers, but so far the process is going in a completely different direction.
Text by Oleksandr Lanetsky, the director of the Lithuanian consulting company Friendly Avia Support. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff. Featured image: @aviation_sam