Tom Allett visited the Blue Danube Airport, serving the Austrian city of Linz.
The town of Linz, located in north central Austria, is bisected by the River Danube, which gives its name to the local airport. Though the aviation industry has had a particularly tough time over the past decade, the Linz Blue Danube Airport has maintained its profitable status and, despite its ownership being split 50-50 between the city of Linz and the State of Upper Austria, it receives no subsidies from any source.
Like numerous other airports, Linz’s passenger figures peaked in 2008, but dipped significantly after airlines were hit by rocketing fuel costs. There is no continuous trend; since that 803,263 peak of 2008, the figures have fallen and then risen again on each consecutive year since. But overall the total was down to 679,372 during 2011, though the airport’s management team expects the figure to reach 680,000 this year with an approximate 64%-36% split between scheduled and charter flights. The summer months of June to September are its busiest period, driven by up to 40 charter flights per week; the rest of the year is dominated by scheduled flights. Market research shows that the majority of Linz’s passengers – approximately 95% – are ‘locals’ travelling out rather ‘outsiders’ flying in. Its catchment area is deemed to stretch for almost 100 miles (150km), reaching out to an estimated 2.1 million potential customers in Upper Austria, Lower Bavaria and South Bohemia.
The airport’s management team sees its main competitors as being Munich, Vienna and Salzburg airports, though recognises that the express trains serving Austria and beyond also represent significant competition. Indeed, while chatting to one of the airport’s passengers during my visit, he told me that he always used the train to get to Vienna Airport rather than flying because of what he felt were inconvenient connections available for his onward flights to the Middle East or Africa. However, those particular connections are improving with Austrian Airlines having increased its Linz-Vienna-Linz rotations from four to five daily. On the minus side, Air Berlin has decided to drop its five-a-week rotations from Berlin this coming winter.
Currently, in terms of routes, the airport rates Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Air Berlin (with its flyniki subsidiary) and Ryanair as its most important carriers. The top routes in terms of passenger numbers last year were Frankfurt (scheduled) and Antalya (charter).
Though modest when compared to dedicated cargo hubs, on a regional basis Linz performs well having been Austria’s busiest regional air freight facility for the past four years. It has already proved its ability to handle outsize cargo aircraft such as the giant Antonov 225.
In terms of recent infrastructure improvements, Linz’s Golf and Zulu taxiways and part of the apron have recently been resurfaced and a new cargo terminal is due to be built at the end of this year. Inside the terminal, a two-year project to increase energy-saving will begin this autumn. This involves replacing the whole building’s thermal insulation over consecutive off-peak seasons; and ending with the final segment – the refurbishment of the arrivals hall – in the autumn of 2014.
Airport CEO Gerhard Kunesch has been in the job for 15 years now. He has an airline background having previously worked for the charter carrier Montana Austria and then Lauda Air. He told me that the past three or four years were the most difficult he had experienced at the airport; though he had witnessed tougher times in his airline days. Now, he considers the financial stability of airlines – and potential carriers – that serve Linz to be the most important factor affecting the airport’s future. “With the general economic situation [in Europe] as it is, airlines are unable to take any kind of financial risk with their route structure.
“Because of this situation, the partnership between the various tourist offices and the airport and airlines is very important now; the airlines need to be convinced [of a route’s viability] by the appeal of the area itself – not just by the airport.”
A worrying factor is the impact of the departure tax imposed by the Austrian authorities in late 2010. The fee is €8 (US$10) for flights within Europe and €40 for others. At the time of its introduction Austria’s coalition government said that the departure levy was just one element of a wider austerity package of new taxes and spending cuts. It’s a scenario familiar to airport operators in France, Germany, Holland, Ireland and the UK. As Europe’s financial recovery has so far been slower than elsewhere in the world, this extra tax has been a bitter pill to swallow.
I am sure Mr Kunesch was effectively speaking for every airport when he called for the departure levy to be dropped immediately. “This tax is a problem for everyone [in the industry] but it is an even bigger handicap for regional airports because the airline ticket price factor is especially critical for them.”
Recent Passenger Numbers
|2012: 680,000 (predicted)|