Budapest Airport flying by the seat of its pants

By bne IntelliNews February 8, 2013

Kester Eddy in Budapest -

It may only have been a minor airline - 22 small and medium-sized jets hardly constitutes a major carrier in the global scheme of things - but for many Hungarians the collapse of Malev last year is one of those defining "what were you doing when....?" moments.

On February 3, 2012, Hungary's flag carrier for 66 years was grounded over night, leaving thousands of very worried passengers at Budapest's Liszt Ferenc airport frantically seeking alternative flights.

Less frantic, but probably more worried, was Budapest Airport, the German-owned operator of Liszt Ferenc, and thousands in the Hungarian hospitality sector. Malev was responsible for 40% of the 8.9m passengers that used the airport in 2011; the potential loss of this traffic would be devastating, certainly for the airport.

Yet 12 months on - unemployed former Malev staff apart - it is almost a case of "crisis, what crisis?"

With low-cost airlines - notably Wizz Air and Ryanair - along with traditional carriers rushing to take up the slack, Budapest Airport boasted a footfall of 8.5m passengers last year, just 4.7% down on 2011. "I think this represents a pretty good recovery, particularly given the global economic troubles," Mihaly Hardy, communications director for Budapest Airport, tells bne. The airport also attracted a batch of new airlines, including Air Berlin, Aegean and Blue 1, and began offering 15 new (and so far successful) destinations, including Ekaterinburg, Lyons, Alicante, Warsaw, Modlin and London Stansted.

However, along with Malev, a clutch of airlines, including American, Delta and regional carrier Carpatair, along with about 20 routes, were lost.

Further, after the dramatic shake-up, the number of air traffic movements, ie. the takeoffs and landings, slumped by more than 20% to 87,560 - a level similar to when budget flights first began serving Budapest a decade ago.

This decline - which will hit the airport's top line - was in part due to scheduled airlines increasing the size of airplanes (to make up for the lost Malev capacity) and in part due to the dramatic loss of feeder routes that used Budapest as a hub. The latter included Beirut, Damascus, Chisinau (Moldova) and capital cities in the successor states of Yugoslavia. "There are some 12-16 ex-Malev, low-density routes from [Budapest airport] that are not flown by anybody at all now," says Hardy.

While these did not account for large numbers of passengers, their loss is significant in terms of using Budapest as a regional centre. "For myself and others here, travelling from Budapest has become much more inconvenient," Roger Swinburn a Budapest-based headhunter operating throughout the region, says. "Malev made Budapest a hub; now we are on the end of others' spokes, and this will surely put off some new investors."

Moreover, in spite of the new destinations served by no-frills carriers, these often prove less than attractive to business travellers. "Budget airlines are not really budget when the all-up costs [including ticket flexibility] are considered. On top of that, one often ends up at some remote airport with further costs, and time, to get into the city centre," Swinburn notes.

Tourism professionals, however, acknowledge the swift response of airlines, particularly the low-cost carriers, has been a major factor in supporting visitor numbers to Hungary. "In the short run, the grounding of Malev has not affected incoming tourism significantly.... From January to November last year, foreign guest nights in hotels in Hungary were up by 11%, and in Budapest by 14.6%," says Gergely Horvath, head of tourism at Hungarian Tourism.

The result was that revenues in hotels were up by 10.3% in the 11 months of 2012. Yet these figures, though positive at first sight, also fail to give the whole story.

In essence, tourism professionals seek high-spending clients, which translates to conference and corporate events, where spending is not merely on accommodation, but on food and drinks throughout the day. "The big problem with conference tourism is they don't really like the budget carriers or the changes [often involved with flying with carriers such as Lufthansa]. Our four-star revenues are up, but we miss the big spending events. Especially our top hotels, like the [Castle] Hilton and SAS Beke are missing these [hospitality] revenues," Judit Liptai, sales director for Budapest-based Danubius Hotels, tells bne.

In addition the weaker forint currency and the over-optimistic expansion of accommodation in the past decade in Hungary has led to a surfeit of rooms, and lower average room rates as hoteliers chase custom. "Everyone wants to keep a share. Five-star hotels are charging four-star prices, four-star are charging three star," Liptai says.

Budapest Airport, meanwhile, says it's striving to attract new carriers and maintains that - despite cost-saving measures - confidential surveys reveal passengers "believe passengers believe that security screening - politeness and helpfulness, thoroughness, waiting time, and general sense of security" has improved.

Not every customer is satisfied, however. Ryanair, famous for its aggressive stance towards what it sees as laggard or greedy operators, complains of "excessively high landing fees, inefficient facilities", as well as a general unwillingness to cooperate to develop traffic.

Robin Kiely, Ryanair spokesman, tells bne that Ryanair switched two aircraft from Budapest in late 2012 with the loss of 10 routes, reductions on nine others and the loss of 110 weekly flights. "Sadly, 800,000 passengers per annum and over 800 jobs will be lost by Budapest to other airports elsewhere in Europe, where Ryanair will continue to grow," he says.

The route to full recovery at Liszt Ferenc International will clearly be a turbulent ride.

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