Long-haul flights from Croatia after COVID-19 pandemic
Updated: May 27
With the large number of questions which we received from our readers in the last few weeks, and with the fact that the situation we are in is quite uncertain in every respect, there are many questions in air traffic which is very difficult to give a precise answer.
What will air traffic look like after a pandemic? Will the carriers, which have now canceled their lines to Croatia, return to fly to destinations in our country when the crisis passes? This is a question that can only be answered by considering each company separately.
Given that the world is still in a kind of "lockdown", it is extremely difficult to predict all the details, but what is clear if the traffic at airports in the Republic of Croatia is 50% of the whole traffic from 2019., airports in Croatia should be satisfied.
The routes can be divided into three categories: domestic, within Europe, and intercontinental routes. This article will focus on long-haul, intercontinental routes. Croatia began to attract large global airlines and they managed to survive in the market. Some will return this summer, some next, and some will kick Croatia out of their network of destinations. Airlines will change its business strategy, so the development of long-haul destinations from Croatia will be stopped for a while. What airports in Croatia must now focus on is the development of routes to Europe, which is the only opportunity for growth and traffic development in the near future. The fact that it was possible to fly directly from Croatia to Dubai, Doha, Seoul, Toronto, and Philadelphia last autumn is a clear sign of what the focus of airports was in the business strategy, but that must now change.
Considering the infrastructure of airports in the Republic of Croatia, their gravitational area and tourism and any other aspect that should be taken into account for the establishment of such routes, Dubrovnik and Zagreb are the only airports in Croatia that can have such routes, Zagreb throughout the year, while Dubrovnik for now only seasonally. Split Airport also has the potential for such routes in the summer flight schedule, but the infrastructure of this airport makes this currently impossible. The airports in Pula, Rijeka, Zadar, and Osijek do not have the potential for such routes.
Intercontinental routes are more specific and have a lower chance of resumption compared to domestic, regional, and European routes in general. Large airlines have begun to develop a point-to-point destination network, but it is now likely that the hub system will need to be used once again until demand returns to last year's level, which will certainly not happen in just the next few months. By producing more efficient long-haul aircraft with lower capacity (B787, A350,...), airlines were allowed to fly on direct routes where they could not previously make a profit. Simply, due to insufficient demand and the lack of the right type of aircraft in the fleet, airlines developed a hub system and allowed transfer flights to passengers arriving at their final destination this way. With the introduction of new types of aircraft in the air transport, companies were finally able to open routes that are not in high demand but can, therefore, serve them with a smaller capacity aircraft, and that is the secret of point-to-point long-haul flights from Croatia. Unfortunately, demand is currently falling and will continue to fall for some time, months and even years will pass until it returns to the level it was in 2019. What remains as an option is the development of routes within Europe and there all airports in Croatia have space for improvement.
American Airlines canceled the Dubrovnik route for this year and retired all B767 aircraft from the fleet, this aircraft type was operating on this route from Philadelphia. If the situation in the world stabilises soon, and the global economic crisis would not be too strong, we can expect that this route could return as early as next summer. As a reminder, last year American introduced a route to Dubrovnik along with several other European destinations and this route was the airline's best hit among all other routes, which flew to far larger European cities. The line started operating with 3 flight per week, additionally increased to 4 in September, and the announcement for this year was great, American was supposed to fly to Dubrovnik daily! The retirement of this type of aircraft from the fleet should not be an obstacle for the Dubrovnik service, given that the American previously announced a change in the type of aircraft in the years to come (probably to B787).
Air Canada Rouge has canceled the Toronto - Zagreb route for this year and will remove all 25 B767 aircraft from its fleet. The question arises as to how the long-haul network of the Air Canada Rouge will work in the future given that this was the only long-haul type of aircraft in the carrier’s fleet. Air Canada has announced several times so far that it does not plan to launch a route to Zagreb, but that it will be operated by the Rouge branch, so there is no big chance for the arrival of this carrier. Given that demand will be lower and that the Air Canada mainline has cut a large number of routes, it is mentioned that Rouge could use Air Canada aircraft in the next summer flight schedule, which would definitely be a plus for the travel experience, B767's from Air Canada Rouge are extremely old with no classic extras in the passenger cabin that we are already used to see on long flights (TV in the seat nowadays became a normal thing).
Air Transat has postponed the resumption of the flights between Toronto and Zagreb for July, but we can expect the complete cancellation for this year. Will this carrier return to Zagreb? Most likely will. Air Transat is a leisure company, and if Air Canada Rouge does not return, Air Transat will have no competition on this route and will certainly profit in such a scenario.
Korean Air has also completely canceled the flights between Seoul and Zagreb for this year. Given the financial situation of this company, which itself announced that it is in big trouble if Korea does not react through state aid, it is certain that the company will have to go through a process of major restructuring and in that case, the route to Zagreb will not return soon in the form in which it has been operating since September 2018. However, it is very possible for the company to do what it did before the mentioned year - to introduce regular charter flights on this route. As we wrote earlier, the airline opens the reservation 365 days in advance and for now offers on sale direct flights to Zagreb 3 times per week by plane B787, which, we can say, means nothing, since this company canceled Zagreb route in October last year, and announced it just a month before.
Qatar Airways has reduced the number of weekly flights to Zagreb and there is no fear that this carrier will not return here given that this line is well established, it is used by tourists and also by a large number of Croatian and Slovenian citizens, especially because Qatar Airways does not fly to Ljubljana and the choice for passengers departing from Ljubljana was very weak even before the outbreak of the pandemic. Qatar, therefore, canceled the planned route to Dubrovnik. Given that this airline has been in negotiations with Dubrovnik Airport, if the situation stabilises soon, we can expect an introduction of flights between Dubrovnik and Doha next summer season.
Emirates has reduced Zagreb service and currently plans to fly again on the route from Dubai from July. This carrier, which has only large capacity aircraft in its fleet (B777, A380) is currently in trouble and will certainly have this kind of problem for a longer time. The small flexibility of the fleet, especially when it comes to capacity, makes it impossible to adjust the capacity to demand and it is now very clear that this airline had to have long-haul aircraft of smaller capacity in its fleet. Over 300 seats on each departure from Zagreb was too much even before (except for the period of peak season), and the capacity at the time of the pandemic, and after it, is something what we don't need to describe, it is obvious. There is a possibility that Emirates will completely cancel this route for this year, it would be logical for their partner FlyDubai to come in which has aircraft with smaller capacity, B737 would be perfect for this summer season.
Thai Air Asia X has planned several rotations in the summer flight schedule between Bangkok and Zagreb. These were planned regular charter flights that will certainly not happen this year and the company will probably not come in Zagreb in the near future.
As stated in the introduction of this article, things are currently bad, both for airlines and airports, actually for tourism and transport in general, but this crisis may eventually bring something good. The only question is how airports recognise this situation and what they are doing about it. If they act in a timely manner, with good marketing strategies and good deals for airlines, Croatian airports can attract certain new carriers to Croatia, or motivate existing ones to stay on their routes to our destinations. It is the right moment now to talk about it. In addition to retaining carriers from long-haul destinations, at the same time airports need to work on a strong campaign with carriers that fly to Croatia from numerous European destinations.