A new concession deal is being sought for Bratislava Ivanka Airport, but investors must beware the history

Slovakia’s Ministry of Transport and Construction plans to finalise and submit a concession strategy to the Government for operation of Bratislava Ivanka Airport by late 2018. The Ministry argues the concession will “ensure further development of the airport” and accelerate passenger growth.


Summary:

  • The Slovak Government is finalising a concession strategy for Bratislava Ivanka Airport, the largest airport in the Eastern European country;
  • Ivanka could have been privatised more than ten years ago in 2006 but the deal fell foul of politics;
  • Bratislava Ivanka is fundamentally an LCC airport and is growing relatively strongly and it is unclear how its future development could be enhanced by a concession;
  • While Slovakia has clear long-term potential, it is politically volatile and there are clear warnings from the past.

This is not the first time that an attempt at privatising the operation of the airport has been attempted. In 2006, the Two-One Consortium, comprising Flughafen Wien (Vienna Airport), the Austrian bank Raiffeisen Zentralbank and the Slovak private equity group Penta offered EUR113.3 million for a 66% stake in Bratislava and Košice airports, trumping one from Abertis of EUR84.87 million.

Interestingly, hardly any of those organisations (Flughafen Wien) remains involved directly in airport investment, and at a considerably lower level. Abertis has left the business altogether. How times change.

But the deal failed to take into account that when it was signed by the previous right wing Dzurinda government there was a clause that the sale had to be approved by the country’s antitrust authority (Protimonopolný úrad, or PMÚ) by 15-Aug-2006, or the contract would be declared invalid.

When the consortium failed to secure its approval in time, the socialist Robert Fico government, which was against the sale of state assets in general and the Bratislava airport in particular, quickly moved to annul the deal, or at least the Bratislava part of it; Košice eventually went ahead and was sold to Flughafen Wien.

Politics apart, the government could have been spooked by a neighbouring country “taking over” its main and capital city airport. Vienna and Bratislava airports are only 80km (50 miles) apart and Vienna wanted to use Bratislava as an LCC facility so that network/hub operations at Vienna would be unhindered (a strategy that has resurfaced recently at Lisbon and Madrid, for example, where new LCC-designated airports are proposed).

But the whole issue sort of queered the pitch for future investment or management contracts at Bratislava. There is no certainty like “uncertainty” where political interference is concerned. As it happens, the Fico government remains in power, within the framework of the coalition system that exists. Fico himself does not, though. He resigned in Mar-2018 and was replaced by Peter Pellegrini, who had been made Deputy Prime Minister for Investments by Fico in 2016.

Whatever Flughafen Wien’s intentions were back in 2006, Bratislava has actually effectively become an LCC supporting airport, with 92% of seat capacity accounted for by budget airlines, and two-thirds of it by Ryanair, followed by Wizz Air, which has a base there.

CHART – More than nine out of ten seats at Bratislava Ivanka Airport are provided by LCCs with Ryanair the dominant carrierSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG (data: w/c 22-Oct-2018)

At Vienna, low-cost has been restricted to just over a quarter of seats (and that is considered too high by the management) and Austrian Airlines remains dominant with 47% of the capacity.

So that is essentially what is on offer at Bratislava, an all-economy, LCC-dominated airport with no local flag carrier (there isn’t one since Slovak Airlines ceased operations in 2007); 99% foreign airlines; hardly any alliance presence (SkyTeam, 3.2%); and which is underutilised (on some days there are no departures or arrivals even between 0800-0900 and 1600-1700!

On the other hand passenger traffic growth has been particularly strong since 2015 and in Jan to Jul-2018 was +20.3%, mainly as a result of the addition of new summer vacation flights, both scheduled and charter.

CHART – Bratislava Ivanka Airport passenger numbers have been growning year-on-year since 2015, at its fastest rate during 2018YTDSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and Bratislava Ivanka Airport reports

The most recently published Annual Report (FY 2016) shows a slight decrease in aeronautical revenues but a large increase (+12.5%) in non-aeronautical ones as a result of the airport beginning to operate its own car park. However, the cost of the new terminal, completed in 2012, means the airport will remain indebted for some time.

Right now, considerable interest is again being generated in Eastern European airports, by the Belgrade concession in 2017 and the current one for Sofia Airport in Bulgaria. On the other hand, in the same country the Plovdiv Airport concession was terminated after China’s HNA Group withdrew its offer. It is likely that despite a reduction in spending from China that companies like HNA will be on the Slovak government’s wish list.

However, while Slovakia has clear long-term potential, it is politically volatile and there are clear warnings from the past.