Aviation Dynamics in Southeastern Europe

Southeastern Europe, encompassing nations such as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia, stands at the cusp of varying economic trajectories in 2023. While Montenegro charts a modest economic ascension of 2.5%, contrasts are noted in Romania and Serbia with their respective advancements of 3.1% and 2.7% (FocusEconomics). The economic pulse of the region throbs under the shadow of geopolitical discord and the reverberations from conflicts afar, such as Ukraine and Gaza, presenting potential hazards to future economic steadiness (FocusEconomics).

A dip in inflation rates toward the tail end of the year suggests a mellowing of economic volatility. For instance, Croatia, Greece, and Serbia witnessed marginal reductions in inflation as of January 2024 compared to the previous month (FocusEconomics). This downtrend is anticipated to invigorate consumer expenditure and investment by 2024's conclusion.

The economic climate significantly influences realms such as business development, tourism, and transport, notably aviation, where stability fosters augmented demand for travel services.

1. Sectorial Insights and Business Prospects

  • Business Development: The fairly consistent economic growth across Southeastern Europe not only attracts foreign investment but also enhances the infrastructural and regulatory landscapes favorable to business, particularly in Romania and Bulgaria. Meanwhile, nations like Serbia and Croatia are refining their business climates to draw more global enterprises.
  • Tourism: The area's rich cultural tapestry and scenic allure, with Greece and Croatia as prime examples, continue to magnetize tourists. Improved economic conditions and rising disposable incomes are likely to spur further growth in tourism, benefitting local economies and elevating demand for air travel.
  • Transit Passenger Transportation: Southeastern Europe's strategic locale serves as a nexus between Western Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, presenting opportunities for it to become a pivotal transit point for passenger movement. The expansion of multimodal transport facilities could significantly bolster this role, particularly for Serbia and Montenegro.
  • Air Cargo Transportation: With e-commerce and regional trade on the rise, there lies potential for bolstering air cargo facilities. Romania and Bulgaria, with their strategic geographic placements and enhancing transport infrastructures, are poised to become central hubs for cargo operations.

2. Regulatory Landscapes and Operational Frameworks

Governed by the stringent norms of the European Union and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the regulatory fabric of the region ensures a uniform safety and operational protocol across member states. This framework spans extensive safety mandates covering diverse aviation activities and is integral to the Single European Sky (SES) initiatives which aim at enhancing airspace efficiency and reducing environmental footprints.

While EU member states align with global standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the enforcement of Safety Management Systems and adherence to ICAO's audit programs further fortify operational integrity (Skybrary Aviation Safety).

3. Major Airlines in South East Europe

Several carriers, including Air Serbia and Croatia Airlines, alongside low-cost entities like Wizz Air, form the backbone of the region's air transport, connecting it extensively within Europe and beyond. These airlines are pivotal in fostering regional connectivity and support various sectors like tourism and business travel.

Here’s a detailed rundown of key airlines in this region:
Air Serbia: Operating from Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Airport, Air Serbia boasts a comprehensive network reaching major destinations across Europe and beyond (Savoteur). Its fleet includes Airbus A319s, A320s for medium-range routes, and ATR 72-600s for regional service, along with an Airbus A330 designated for transatlantic journeys to New York. Throughout 2023, Air Serbia launched 23 new routes, expanding its network to a total of 87 routes across 34 countries, including Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa. Air Serbia experienced a significant increase in passenger numbers, carrying 4.19 million passengers over the year. This was a considerable growth compared to previous years, reflecting the successful expansion of its route network and an increase in the overall demand for its services (Air Serbia) (EX-YU Aviation News). The airline achieved a record profit of EUR 40.5 million in 2023, with revenues reaching EUR 627.9 million. These results marked a significant achievement, especially considering that they were accomplished without state subsidies. This financial success is attributed to the efficient operation and strategic expansions made throughout the year (Air Serbia).
Croatia Airlines: As Croatia's flag carrier, this airline links significant European cities and is recognized for its safety and Star Alliance membership. Currently modernizing its fleet to all-Airbus A220s, including A220-100 and A220-300 models, Croatia Airlines is enhancing its operational efficiency and environmental sustainability. The airline plans to replace its older Airbus models with six new A220s by 2026. Specific number on destinations for 2023 was not detailed. The airline has not disclosed passenger numbers and financial data for 2023.
Wizz Air: This Hungarian low-cost carrier commands a robust route network throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, favored for its competitive pricing. In 2023, Wizz Air operated a total of 187 aircraft with an average age of 4.2 years, reflecting its commitment to modern and efficient air travel. The airline serviced over 900 routes, connecting passengers to 196 airports across 54 countries. This extensive network underscores its presence as a major low-cost carrier in Europe and beyond. Wizz Air carried 33 million passengers in the first half of fiscal year 2024, indicating strong passenger traffic and business growth. The financial performance for Wizz Air showed a robust outlook with a total cash reserve of 1.8 billion EUR, highlighting its financial stability and operational success during the period (Wizz Air).
Bulgaria Air: Based in Sofia, Bulgaria Air flies to destinations across Europe, the Middle East, and Russia, focusing on both business and leisure markets. Their fleet, which includes 14 aircraft like the Airbus A220 and A320, emphasizes enhanced operational efficiency and reduced carbon emissions. The airline operates flights to 22 major cities across Europe and the Middle East, including capitals and large urban centers like Berlin, Paris, London, and Madrid. They also offer charter and business flights to over 100 destinations worldwide, expanding their reach significantly (Chimimport.bg). In 2023, Bulgaria Air transported 729,550 passengers, showing significant growth from the previous year. Specific financial results for 2023 were not detailed.
TAROM: Romania's oldest airline, operating from Bucharest, offers routes across Europe and select destinations in the Middle East and North Africa. As of 2023, TAROM's fleet comprises 23 aircraft, including 6 Airbus A318-100s, 4 Airbus ATR 42-500s, 2 Airbus ATR 72-500s, 4 Boeing 737-300s, 2 Boeing 737-700s, and 5 Boeing 737-800s (TAROM) (iFly). Specific passenger numbers for 2023 are not readily available. TAROM has faced financial challenges, aiming to return to profitability by 2024 (TAROM). Efforts to modernize the fleet and optimize operations contribute to its strategy for achieving a positive financial outcome.
Aegean Airlines: Greece’s largest airline by passengers, fleet size, and destinations served, Aegean connects key European cities and some Middle Eastern and North African locations. Their fleet of 76 planes primarily consists of Airbus A320 family aircraft, including newer A320neo models. The airline expanded its reach significantly, covering over 180 destinations across 49 countries. This expansion includes more than 30 new international routes. In 2023, Aegean Airlines carried approximately 15.5 million passengers, which marked a 26% increase compared to the previous year (Aviation24). This growth is supported by an increase in available seats, rising to 18.5 million, reflecting a capacity expansion of 3.1 million seats over 2022. For the full year of 2022, Aegean reported consolidated revenues of approximately €1.34 billion, which was a 98% increase from 2021 and slightly above pre-pandemic levels. The company recorded a net income of €106.8 million for the year, recovering from a net loss in the previous years.
Air Montenegro: Established in 2021 following Montenegro Airlines' cessation, this flag carrier maintains routes across Europe, focusing on connections between Western and Eastern Europe. The fleet comprises three aircraft, including an Embraer E195, an Airbus A320, and a newer Embraer E190. The airline services several destinations across Europe, including regular flights to and from cities such as Frankfurt, Ljubljana, Munich, Paris, Prague, and Rome (Airmontenegro). Passenger numbers and financial performance of Air Montenegro are not detailed.
Sky Express: A regional Greek airline, Sky Express operates a domestic network and has begun to branch out internationally. Their 25-aircraft fleet includes Airbus A320neo and Airbus A321neo, as well as the ATR72-600s, catering to both mainline and regional demands. Sky Express operates flights to a wide range of destinations across Greece, connecting major cities and islands, which includes Athens, Thessaloniki, Chania, Heraklion, and more (Sky Express). The airline expanded its network to 43 national and international destinations, reflecting its strategy to enhance connectivity within Greece and to other parts of Europe. Passenger numbers and Detailed financial results were not disclosed.
Pegasus Airlines: A leading Turkish low-cost airline, Pegasus offers an extensive array of domestic and international flights. Their fleet, exceeding 100 aircraft, includes Boeing 737 and Airbus A320neo families, facilitating a wide-reaching network across Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. The airline has been leveraging its main hub at Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen International Airport to maximize its route efficiency (Flypgs). The airline's passenger numbers have been robust, with a reported 26.9 million passengers flown in 2022. This marked a 33.7% increase compared to the previous year (AeroTime) Financially, Pegasus Airlines reported a turnover of €2.45 billion in 2022, with a net profit of €431 million.
These airlines significantly enhance the connectivity and economic integration of South East Europe with the continent and beyond, playing vital roles in tourism, business travel, and cultural exchange.

4. Major Airports in South East Europe

Key airports like Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport and Zagreb Airport are not only advancing in capacity but are also setting records in passenger traffic, underscoring robust growth and recovery in the sector. Expansion projects across major airports aim to elevate operational capacities and enhance passenger experiences, aligning with broader economic and infrastructural growth.
Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport (Serbia): As Serbia's primary international gateway and the hub for Air Serbia, Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport reached over seven million passengers in 2023, setting a new record and showcasing significant growth in traffic. This marks a notable recovery and expansion in travel sectors.
Zagreb Airport (Croatia): Croatia's main international airport saw a substantial rise in passengers to 3.72 million in 2023 after its expansion in 2017, reflecting strong travel demand and continuous improvements in capacity and services (zagreb-airport.hr) (Wikipedia).
Dubrovnik Airport (Croatia): Located near the historic city of Dubrovnik, this airport serves as a crucial gateway to the Adriatic coast, primarily supporting the tourist market. It handled 2.41 million passengers in 2023, a 12.50% increase from 2022, highlighting its role in linking Croatia's Adriatic coast with Europe during peak tourist seasons.
Sofia Airport (Bulgaria): Bulgaria's largest airport and a key hub in Eastern Europe, Sofia Airport served approximately 6 million passengers in 2023, recovering towards pre-pandemic levels and planning expansions to handle increasing traffic (The Sofia Globe).
Athens International Airport (Greece): As Greece’s busiest airport, Athens International Airport served 28.2 million passengers in 2023, an all-time high that shows a 24% increase over 2022, continuing its enhancements to capacity and passenger experience.
Bucharest Henri Coandă International Airport (Romania): Romania's busiest airport, home to TAROM and low-cost carriers like Ryanair and Wizz Air, saw a passenger count of about 14.63 million in 2023, up 16.56% from 2022, demonstrating robust recovery in regional air travel demand.
Expansion Plans and Development: Several major expansion projects are underway across these airports. These initiatives are essential for enhancing travel experiences and supporting economic activities by improving regional connectivity to global markets, impacting tourism, business travel, and logistics vital to the economies of South East European countries.
  • Belgrade Airport is adding a new runway and terminal to boost its capacity.
  • Zagreb Airport continues to expand its facilities, including additional gates and improved baggage systems.
  • Sofia Airport is planning a new terminal and a second runway to accommodate more flights.
  • Athens International Airport has an extensive development plan, “Airport City,” integrating commercial and entertainment facilities.
  • Bucharest Airport is set to enhance its terminals and runways to support growing traffic.
  • Dubrovnik Airport has made several upgrades to its terminals and airfield systems to handle larger aircraft.

The South East Europe aviation market, ripe with potential and driven by a complex yet facilitative regulatory framework, invites exploration and expansion, promising to be a linchpin in the broader aviation dynamics of Europe.