Is it a political stunt or is there actual demand for a direct flight to JFK? In this article, our writer Nedžad Beus investigates the history of flights between the ex-Yugoslav region and North America, including Air Serbia’s route launched last year.
The transatlantic market was and still is quite large for the ex-Yugoslav region due the vast amount of diaspora living in North America. Flights to North America were operated from the mid 70s up to 1992 by JAT – Yugoslav Airlines. At the peak, JAT operated flights to New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Montreal and Toronto, which were popular with tourists. It wasn’t unusual to book a year in advance due the massive amount of passengers. However, due the economical reforms in the mid 80’s and early 90’s, the demand suddenly dropped and there were issues with availability of jet fuel. By 1992 all international flights had stopped due the UN imposed sanctions, which were lifted in 1995, and put in place again in 1999 for 78 days.
Having lost the right to operate in the US and Canada, JAT placed their only DC-10 on European routes and on the route to Beijing. In 2005 the DC-10 was retired and JAT was left with no long haul aircraft. JAT announced that they were going to lease two Boeing 767-200ER’s to operate flights to North America, but these plans never materialised. Uzbekistan Airways and JAT, however, announced in September 2005 a codeshare on the route Tashkent – Belgrade – New York, but these flights were shortlived due the nonexistant demand at that time.
Following the strategic alliance with Etihad, JAT was rebranded as Air Serbia, and the fleet was replaced with Airbus aircraft, and the Boeings were pushed into charter role. Due the political desires by Aleksandar Vučić to reestablish flights to North America, Air Serbia announced that flights to New York would start on the 23rd of June, 2016, operated on an Airbus A330-200 which was leased from Jet Airways – another Etihad partner. Dane Kondić, the Air Serbia CEO, said that the line was set to break even in 2020, and that until then it would be running the line at a loss. Initially the flights looked promising, with Air Serbia flying 5 times weekly and the load factor in July being 81%, even with massive delays which lasted up to 4 hours. However the load factor had decreased to 61% in October, with it recovering to 65% in November.
The airline has not published any information about the load factor since then, but they cut have the flight from 5x to 3x weekly, operating on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. The aircraft has also operated special flights in the ex-Yu area, and it has even stepped in as a replacment for Air Seychelles’ A330-200. The airline also stated that it had no plans to aquire more widebody aircraft.
It seems that Air Serbia has made a bad decision by deciding to start their long haul operations now. They have one of the smallest fleets which includes a widebody aircraft in Europe, with 20 narrow body aircraft and 1 widebody. JAT on the other hand had 34 aircraft, of which 29 were narrow body and 5 were widebodies, and it’s worth mentioning that JAT was one of the largest European airlines at that time. The flight instead of being seasonal and capitalising on the diaspora is operated during the whole year, which brings low load factors outside of the holiday season and therefore losses to the airline. The airline has not published any information for revenue and profit made in 2016, which could mean that the airline has lost money, despite having a modest profit of in the years prior.
The summer season will show if the flights will be suspended or they will continue to burn a hole in Air Serbia’s wallet.