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Flight over the coronavirus

The pandemic has landed most of the world’s fleet. We researched how small private carriers operate

Had the situation been a little different, the end of the year would have filled the airspace radars with countless dots. The holiday season is the busiest season for airlines, with hundreds of thousands of people flying from one end of the world to the other, traveling to visit families or to lavish and exotic New Year celebrations. The end of 2020 was not like that.

The coronavirus pandemic has stopped everything, most airlines have drastically reduced the number of their operations and landed most of the fleet.

According to unofficial statistics of the Croatian Civil Aviation Agency on air traffic in the Republic of Croatia, the number of transported passengers in December 2020 was 82% lower than in the same month in 2019. Almost 310,000 passengers were transported in December 2019, and less than 55,000 passengers were transported last December.

Still, you have to fly.

A group of six businessmen had to go to the Macedonian capital Skopje these days. The health situation canceled numerous business meetings or moved them to virtual platforms like Zoom, but this time it was an important and urgent job that required their presence. They named one of only four Croatian private charter companies, Osijek’s Air Pannonia. Within just a few hours, a ready crew and a luxurious Cessna Citation Jet, a small but powerful jet designed to transport VIP passengers, were waiting for them at Zagreb Airport.

If they had decided to travel by car, businessmen would have traveled to Skopje for hours. After the job is done, they would have to take the hotel and only on the second day set off on a long journey back to Zagreb. This way, in one day, they did everything they needed to do, managed to eat a good lunch and told the pilot that they would be a little late.

“No problem, the crew is ready when you say so,” he told them. They arrived, boarded, sweetened themselves on the plane with fruit and a bottle of good wine, and within a little over an hour, were home.

This is just one example of what air travel looks like these days. Many destinations have become inaccessible due to the pandemic, regular lines are hard to find, and there is a risk of infection, so charters have taken over some of these passengers.

The following figures show what problems the aviation industry is facing around the world. Estimates from the end of last year from the UN aviation agency ICAO say that companies had a 50 percent lower supply of seats, a 60 percent drop in passengers, or almost three billion fewer passengers and almost $ 400 billion in profit, small carriers they have, however, managed what some of the world’s great companies have not – to survive.

Is this the situation in Croatia?

As we were told in the Croatian Civil Aviation Agency, they do not keep official statistics on the number of flights by private carriers, but airports do. But in our biggest ports they don’t want to reveal it because it’s a trade secret, pointing us to the carriers themselves. However, we unofficially find out that the fact that small carriers have taken over part of the market, but this is not, as they say, a significant increase compared to previous years.

– We do not complain, although our business is declining due to the infection. The problem is that many business activities and events have been canceled, such as fairs, which has traditionally been one of the most important business segments for us. Also, tourism is declining. But the pandemic has also brought us some new travelers who primarily want safety and protection from disease. New rules have been introduced, additional checks, constant disinfection of aircraft, compliance with all measures before and during the flight by the crew and the passenger.

For example, these are family people who do not want to risk infection and would rather go on a private plane trip with their family. When they calculate costs and put safety first, we turn out to be very favorable – explains Zrinka Kujundžija, who is in charge of administrative affairs, flight arrangements and contact with clients at Air Pannonia.

The logic is simple – in the usual “big plane” there are dozens, sometimes hundreds of people.

It is necessary to wait in line for check-in, to wait at the gate, all this among many people, which many see as a risk of infection. There is no such thing in private jets.

The general notion is that charter flights are very expensive, but Kujundžija tells us that this may not be the case. Flight prices vary from five to 40,000 euros, depending on the destination and the wishes of the passengers. For example, airport taxes in Switzerland are very high, and in some countries they are small, some countries charge additional taxes per passenger, others only per aircraft.

– There are a lot of variables and that is why it is difficult to say how much one flight costs, the price is calculated separately for each client. But what we always emphasize is that, in conditions when there are no regular lines, charter flights are often even savings. Hotel, per diems, fuel … All this group of businessmen would have to pay if they decided to go by car or public transport, and with us they do not have any of these costs and still save time, which is always very important to them – he explains. He says that, unlike the big aviation, the charters did not lose much in traffic due to the pandemic, and they also gained some new clients. Air Pannonia is a family business that has been in business since 1993.

The story was started by father Miroslav Vlašić flying a Russian Antonov-2 aircraft for agricultural purposes, and his son Domagoj, who also runs the air service, and his son Krešimir followed in his footsteps. , also a pilot, and the female part of the crew of this company is in charge of finances, sales and administration.

The story was started by father Miroslav Vlašić flying a Russian Antonov-2 aircraft for agricultural purposes, and his son Domagoj, who also runs the air service, and his son Krešimir followed in his footsteps. , also a pilot, and the female part of the crew of this company is in charge of finances, sales and administration.

They have two Cessna CJ and CJ2 aircraft, both of which they bought directly at a price of one million euros for a smaller aircraft and about two million euros for a larger one. They made about 800 flights in 2019, and in 2020 it remained at a similar level. Moreover, a year earlier they ended up with 12 employees, and in 2020 with 15 employees, which means that stories are falling into the water that the entire aviation industry is on its knees. On average, they say, they do up to 50 flights a month, or 40-90 flight hours, and the situation changes depending on the time of year. The work is mostly seasonal. Longtime pilot Goran says that most flights are from March to October, but that has also changed due to the coronavirus. He reiterates that various business activities have been canceled, and tourist trips are less, partly because many countries cannot be entered without various tests or several days of quarantine, but also because people do not decide to travel for fear of infection.

– But for small operators, traffic may have even increased. People who have money continued to travel and we took some of the passengers off the regular lines. We get in touch with people who have not traveled this way so far, but realize that this is the safest form of transportation because as a group they are isolated in our aircraft that is disinfected before and after each flight. They are not in contact with other passengers like in big planes and that gives them a sense of security, and we recommend everyone to wear masks – explains Goran, who flies all over Europe with co-pilot Toni.

The Cessna CJ2 has a range of up to three hours and accommodates up to eight passengers. He flies mostly to Germany, Italy and Austria, but it is not uncommon to fly to Spain, Macedonia, Serbia … So far, he has hosted many celebrities on the plane. Moreover, the company tells us that most of the clientele is from abroad, and they provide them with everything they ask for. The famous tenor José Carreras, the planetarily popular singer Zucchero, Andrea Bocelli , members of the Croatian national football team, Fernando Alonso, and the president also flew in Cessna. Uefa Alexander Ceferin was a regular customer before the pandemic when he traveled to meetings across Europe. They are mostly businessmen, entertainers and athletes.

– The interesting thing about our business is that there is no flight schedule. We do not know when we will take off or when we will return, it all depends on the wishes of the passengers. We took off for Skopje at 9, we were supposed to be back around 6 pm, but the meeting dragged on. This is not a problem for us, we wait as long as necessary. While they are in the meeting, we are at the hotel or walking around the city, and it is only important that they call us an hour earlier so that everything is ready to take off. There are various options. Sometimes we pick up passengers at one destination and in a few days we pick them up where we left them – says a pilot who has been in aviation all his life, and has been parachuting since 1982 and has won 10 national parachuting titles. -the lines have so far passed more than 300 European airports.

We are interested, of course, in whether VIP guests also have “VIP requests”. What to eat and drink in luxury private jets?

– Mostly these are very common desires, like water, juices, fruits and wine. We always have top quality bottles on board, as well as champagne. But, there is almost nothing we cannot fulfill if we are told on time, from vegan or vegetarian meals, gluten-free ones to sumptuous dinners, fish, various delicacies … Everything can be arranged – says the pilot, who adds that Those who are afraid of flying are often found on charter flights, so the role of the crew is to comfort them, calm them down, explain that everything will be fine, and charters can be entered without any problems with pets.

– We will not complain or rejoice too much. The fact is that the turnover in the fourth month fell sharply. Earlier, we knew exactly when and where to expect increased demand, and as numerous events were canceled, a period of uncertainty followed. It was especially stressful to do business in March, when countries began to close. One rule applied in England, another in France … And everyone wanted to go home. There was a lot of administration, obtaining special permits and researching individual rules in each country. However, as far as passengers are concerned, the responsibility for obtaining PCR tests and the necessary documentation is on them, and the control is performed by airport officials when we land. Of course, before the summer, we explain to everyone what they need – explains Zrinka Kujundžija.

Namely, companies do not have the responsibility to check PCR tests or, for example, whether a passenger has a passport. It is up to them to board the passenger and land safely with him, and the airport officials in the country where they land will determine if everything is regular. Of course, the rules are explained to passengers before the flight, for example that in some countries you can not go without a test older than three days, but it is all the individual responsibility of passengers who, if not complied with, will simply be banned from entering the country have to turn around and go home.

This was a demanding year, in which we learned to adapt overnight, learned to be patient, recognize new opportunities and focus on new ways of working. The future and what awaits us is very difficult to predict. In our business, I believe that our offer of safer and faster travel will be increasingly recognized. There is no negative way of thinking for entrepreneurs, so our prediction is that a good, healthy, and bright future awaits us, they conclude.

We wonder how much a flight costs then?

– Depending on the type of aircraft and the time of year, the business trip Zagreb – Skopje – Zagreb for five business passengers costs about 6,000 euros, and a family from Zagreb with two children can go to Sardinia for about 6,500 euros. It all depends on the requirements, departure time, airport openness, number of passengers and additional wishes of the client – they say in Air Pannonia.