Regional airports flying high
Prague sees drop in passenger numbers as domestic rivals soar
Posted: January 23, 2013
By Lubomír Sedlák
For the Post
Passenger traffic through the Czech Republic's regional airports grew last year, in some cases dramatically, while the capital saw a drop in the number of people passing through.
While official figures are not yet available, Prague Václav Havel Airport said it was expecting 2012's total to be slightly lower than that of the year before, when 11.8 million passengers used the facility.
Monthly figures from last year indicate the airport's tail-off in passenger numbers, which in October was renamed after the late former president, could prove significant.
In May, for example, passenger numbers fell 13.7 percent to 931,666 on the back of a 12.6 percent drop in aircraft movements to 11,843.
Last year's fall in passenger numbers largely stemmed from cutbacks in services by Czech Airlines (ČSA), according to airport spokeswoman Eva Krejčí. She predicted there would be a slight upturn this year.
"In 2013, however, we are once again predicting growth, of approximately 2 percent," she said.
Prague Václav Havel Airport is not helped by what Petr Navrátil, a spokesman for the Czech Civil Aviation Authority (ÚCL), described as the "rather tragic" state of Evropská street, the road that leads from the airport to the city.
While Prague's international airport suffered a decline in 2012, some of the country's regional airports enjoyed bumper increases in passenger traffic, with travelers from Russia key to the expansion.
At Pardubice, the number of people passing through the airport rose 92 percent last year, reaching 125,008, a result the airport's director, Vít Málek, told the Czech News Agency (ČTK) "exceeded all expectations." Four-fifths of passengers were from Russia.
"This is in fact the only country to which we fly regularly, the remaining 20 percent [of passengers] being Czechs on charter flights to summer resorts in the Mediterranean," Málek told The Prague Post.
He said lower airport taxes partly explain why so many Russian visitors travel through Pardubice.
"That could indeed be one of the assets, but another one is that we are still little frequented, so the airline companies can choose the landing and take-off times - or slots, as they are called - that suit them best," he said.
Málek noted that Pardubice's relative closeness to Prague - it is around 100 kilometers away - makes it a suitable point of entry for Russians, as he conceded they are mostly traveling to the capital.
Navrátil said Pardubice offered other practical advantages, as well.
"The fact this airport is still not much used means, moreover, the passengers pass through the terminal much more quickly than in Prague," he said.
Pardubice airport is not the only regional airport in the Czech Republic to have recorded significant growth last year, although its increase in 2012 is the biggest announced so far.
At Karlovy Vary Airport, passenger numbers grew from 99,014 in 2011 to 103,682 last year. As with Pardubice, Russians were the dominant nationality, accounting for as many as 99 percent of people passing through the airport at this spa town in west Bohemia. The remaining 1 percent were Czechs on summer charter flights to Turkey.
As well as Prague, Pardubice and Karlovy Vary, major passenger airports in the country are found in Brno and Ostrava, although figures for these were not available at press time.
A sixth facility that could become significant is Vodochody, 15 kilometers north of Prague.
The airport's owner, investment group Penta, has ambitions to grow passenger numbers to 3.5 million a year by attracting low-cost carriers such as Ryanair, which left Prague in 2010 after a dispute over airport taxes.
Last year, Vodochody handled just 793 passengers, up from 672 in 2011, the total being modest because most of the airport's 18,500 aircraft movements were training flights.
The airport has faced strong local opposition to its growth plans, and previous environmental impact assessments (EIAs) have rejected expansion.
Despite the setbacks, officials remain committed to growth. Martin Kačur, the airport's managing director, said the facility was awaiting the findings of another EIA and added it could take two years before all permits required to put up a terminal building are in place.
"It's very hard to say exactly [when large-scale operations could start] because there's still a process in front of us. After we receive a positive statement regarding the environmental impact assessment from the Environment Ministry, we have [to obtain] planning permission and construction permits," he said.
"Construction could be very quick because it's not too complex. ... In two, two-and-a-half years, we can start discussions with the airlines and then can start operating some time at the beginning of 2016."
Kačur said the airport would benefit from what he described as easier access to Prague than what is offered at Prague Václav Havel Airport.
"It can be much quicker. You can get much faster to the metro station," he said.
The focus of expansion would be on medium-haul routes served by narrow-bodied aircraft such as the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737.
- Daniel Bardsley contributed to this report.
Lubomír Sedlák can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org