“Let me be straight with you. What I'd rather have is an airplane. We just had a third kid. I don't like flying commercial. I like to take my family to Hawaii. When I go east, I'd like to have pilots I know. ”
A business jet traveler's guide to Eastern European airports
Once upon a time, "Go west, young man!" was good advice for opportunity seekers. These days, though, you might be better off headed in the opposite direction. Here's what you need to know to fly into some fast-growing Eastern and Southern European nations.
Close to half a billion people and 27 states now comprise the European Union, whose newest members, Bulgaria and Romania, joined at the beginning of 2007. Just three years earlier, 10 other states joined the EU: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Croatia and Turkey are now set to join, too. With youthful, well-educated populations, these Eastern and Southern European countries offer Western companies a major new source of customers and-perhaps more significantly in the short term-relatively inexpensive labor.
In theory, travel to and between these EU states should be straightforward, since common immigration and customs rules apply. However, flying a private jet to a place whose name you can barely pronounce may seem a daunting challenge. It can only seem tougher once you discover that dedicated ground-support facilities (or FBOs) for handing this class of aircraft rarely exist in Eastern Europe, although the situation is changing.
In many locations, moreover, the airport company or national airline largely controls handling arrangements and these bodies don't have a good reputation for responding to the needs of business aircraft operators. And while airline services have improved, an influx of business visitors has resulted in a significant increase in the volume of aircraft traffic descending on the new EU states.
Feras, an independent partner in Universal Weather & Aviation's UVGlobal Network, has specialized in providing handling and support in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for more than a decade. According to the company's marketing director, Otto Wright, the past three years have seen an approximately 10-percent increase in business aircraft traffic to the new EU states. He said that smaller provincial airports are witnessing much higher increases of 200 to 300 percent, albeit from a very low starting point.
Feras confirmed that the majority of airports in these countries lack good, dedicated infrastructure for business aircraft. While getting fuel isn't hard, finding the right people to provide ground handling can be a challenge. Language barriers exacerbate these problems, as can difficulties over credit arrangements. "Private FBOs just don't exist and the airports usually have a complete monopoly on handling," Wright explained.
Many airports in Eastern Europe are now seeing rapid growth in airline traffic through the proliferation of low-cost carriers. In Wright's view, airports generally are more focused on encouraging this client base than on providing the flexibility that business aviation demands. For example, at a Lithuanian provincial airport recently, a Feras client wanted to depart an hour later than planned but couldn't because the facility's entire handling infrastructure was occupied with a low-cost-carrier Ryanair flight at that time. The business jet was effectively grounded because it couldn't get fuel or catering.
In other instances, aircraft have been grounded because they couldn't get the technical support they needed. Business aircraft manufacturers (almost all of which are based in North America) have generally been slow to expand their support networks into Eastern and Southern Europe.
However, some airports in this part of the world can be very convenient for business fliers, Wright said. For instance, the airports in Riga and Tallinn (the capitals of Latvia and Estonia, respectively) are proving to be popular transit points for intercontinental flights, allowing operators to clear EU customs and immigration and refuel before continuing to a final destination. (Customs and immigration procedures for flights into and between all the EU states are now fairly uniform and straightforward, according to Marjan Trilar, a Slovenia-based representative of Air Routing International, a flight-planning company.) Airport slots are rarely a problem for business aircraft operators, except perhaps at busy summer vacation destinations, such as Split on the Adriatic coast of Croatia.
One-Stop Shops for Aircraft Handling in Eastern Europe
Feras has provided handling services in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for more than a decade. Airport-handling monopolies make it hard for such firms to be as hands-on as they would like, however. Feras has licenses to "supervise" handling arrangements but not to actually do the work. Similarly, operators are generally forbidden from doing their own handling in Eastern Europe, leaving them at the mercy of the monopoly service providers.
Nonetheless, the "supervision" that Feras provides is very proactive, with locally based troubleshooters in place to ensure that customers get the best possible service from the available infrastructure. In addition to its local agents, Feras has an operations center for Eastern Europe in Prague and branch offices in Budapest and Warsaw.
The Feras center in Prague (420 2 3334 3362, euroopscenter@ feras-cis.com, www.feras-cis.com) can make handling arrangements for just about any location in Central and Western Europe.
Another flight-planning group with experts available to facilitate operations in Central and Eastern Europe is Air Routing International (386 4 253 5051, email@example.com, www.airrouting.com). According to its Ljubljana, Slovenia-based representative, Marjan Trilar, airports in this region are only slowly waking up to the market potential for serving business aircraft. He reported that several FBO developments are being planned in these states and predicted that these will probably be more similar to those in leading Western European cities than to U.S. FBOs.