Prague Airport: Positive thinking!
Jiří Pos, Prague Airport’s chair of the board, talks to Joe Bates about the Czech gateway’s 85th anniversary, future development plans and success in ACI’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) programme.
With little domestic or transfer traffic and the Czech Republic introducing some of the toughest travel restrictions in Europe during the COVID pandemic, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the last three years have been particularly hard on Prague Airport.
Like many airports, it has seen its passenger numbers fall from a record high of 17.8 million in 2019 to 3.6 million in 2020, not helped, of course, by the struggles of national flag carrier, Czech Airlines, which currently only operates to a handful of destinations.
Last year proved to be a little better for the airport with 4.38 million passengers passing through its facilities.
However, the airport expects some 10.5 million passengers to use its facilities in 2022 and its confidence in the global appeal of Prague and its huge economic and social importance to the entire country, means that it is looking to the future with optimism.
So much so, in fact, that it has plans to expand its terminal, build a new runway and develop its very own airport city.
Looking to the future
Although chair of the board, Jiří Pos, doesn’t expect traffic levels at Prague Airport to surpass their pre-pandemic high until 2026, it has not stopped him and his management team from planning for future growth.
As a result, on the drawing board are plans for a sizeable expansion of Terminal 2 and partial extension of Terminal 1 to improve passenger flows, allow for the introduction of one central security zone, and raise Prague Airport’s capacity to 21 million passengers per annum by 2028.
Upon completion, Terminal 1 will become Prague Airport’s dedicated Schengen facility and Terminal 2 will be better equipped to handle more Non-Schengen long-haul flights, which Pos sees as a key area for future growth.
The plan is currently awaiting Ministry of Finance approval, and doesn’t include the cost of potentially raising the airport’s capacity to 24mppa at a later date subject to passenger demand.
And there’s more, as in a totally separate project the airport is seeking to revamp its airfield by replacing its existing cross runway system with two parallel runways that will enhance its operational efficiency and allow it to handle up to 50 aircraft movements per hour.
“The plan essentially involves closing the existing cross runway and building a new parallel runway,” reveals Pos. “It is quite a complex project, but we have already completed the environmental impact assessment, and are awaiting an urban construction permit, which could theoretically allow us to construct it after 2030.”
He is quick to note that both the terminal expansion plans and runway revamp take into account the likelihood of the airport handling more transfer traffic in the future, particularly as home carriers Smartwings and Czech Airlines are known to be looking for a leading international airline as a global partner.
The reconfiguration of the runways would also potentially free-up 200 hectares of land on-site that Pos says the gateway is already thinking about developing as an airport city from 2030 onwards.
Pos, who was appointed chairman of the board in August 2021, says: “Our forecast is that traffic will reach around 18 million passengers per annum in 2026. It is, however, important to remember that this is just a forecast and that everything can change very quickly, as we have seen with the COVID pandemic.
“I am also sure that some would say that our 2026 prediction for equalling or bettering the airport’s performance in 2019 is overly cautious, and we hope it proves to be the case, but it just goes to show difficult it is to make future predictions in these unprecedented times.
“So, we must be flexible in our planning and prepare for a number of different scenarios for the next five, ten and twenty years and beyond.”
Talking about the proposed airport city, he says: “Building an airport city would provide us with new opportunities to monetise our assets. We could, for example, use the land to build new hangers and other general aviation facilities. We are also looking at potentially using the site as the location for a new school or academy and other non-aviation relayed activities.”
Whatever happens traffic wise in 2022 or in the future, it cannot take away the fact that this is a milestone year for the gateway as Václav Havel Airport Prague – to give it its official name – is celebrating its 85th anniversary.
The airport, then known as Prague-Ruzyně, handled its first commercial flight on April 5, 1937, and the milestone event, and its history and development since then, is being celebrated throughout 2022 courtesy of an interactive exhibition, special airport tours and podcasts.
Pos says: “The 85th anniversary is significant and worthy of recognition, however, as another wave of the pandemic was brewing and the war in Ukraine was escalating back in April, our celebrations on the day were quite low-key. I would, however, like to note that I am very happy about the short film, ‘Super Heroes’, we made about airport staff. Who else but our employees are heroes in the true sense of the word.”
Key economic generator
There is no disputing that the airport is a key economic generator for Prague, the surrounding region and the Czech Republic.
Indeed, Prague is the main international airport of the Czech Republic with a catchment area that effectively covers the whole of country and stretches into Saxony in eastern Germany as well as parts of Poland and Austria.
Around 3,500 people work for the Prague Airport group (Prague Airport, Czech Airlines Handling and Czech Airlines Technics) – including 2,600 for the 100% government owned airport authority – making it one of the region’s biggest employers. Pre-COVID, the Prague Airport group generated €360 million a year in revenue.
A total of 10.2 million people live in the Czech Republic, with 1.6 million of them based in Prague.
Recovery from COVID
Pos has no hesitation in admitting that the pandemic hit Prague Airport hard, especially as it came hot on the heels of the all-time traffic high of 2019.
He notes that at ACI EUROPE’s Annual Congress & Assembly in Rome it was stated that the Czech Republic, Finland, the UK were the countries most affected by COVID in Europe due to the scale and length of the travel restrictions.
This is, of course, backed up by the airport’s traffic figures for 2020 and 2021, however, Pos believes that last year’s 20% upturn in passenger numbers and 13% in aircraft movements show that his airport’s “slow recovery” from COVID is gathering momentum.
Reflecting on 2021, Pos says: “Many connections were resumed and the number of frequencies to existing destinations increased. We welcomed five brand new carriers at the airport and added connections to six new destinations, including remote exotic places such as Zanzibar, the Maldives and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.”
In addition, German low-cost carrier, Eurowings, launched its Prague base operations in November 2021.
He notes that a total of 58 carriers currently serve Prague operating scheduled and charter services to 147 destinations. This compares to 78 airlines and 198 destinations pre-COVID.
“I am happy to report that our traffic figures are going in the right direction, and life is beginning to return to the airport, but we still have a long way to go as last year’s passenger total of 4.38 million is still 75% down on 2019, which was, of course, the most successful year in our history,” comments Pos.
The decline in international passengers as a result of COVID also means that the split between inbound and outbound travellers at the airport has changed to 40/60, whereas pre-pandemic the mix was more like 65/35 in favour of inbound visitors, due to the global attraction of Prague that has traditionally led to the city’s inclusion on the European tours of many Asian and North American visitors.
Taking about the changing traffic dynamic, Pos says: “The desire of Czechs to travel abroad had been steadily growing for a number of years before the pandemic, and the appetite we have seen for some of our new routes this year, especially to seaside destinations, shows that if anything this has got stronger since COVID.
“Having said that, we have a lot of catching up to do as, based on population size, the average Czech travels by air once a year. This compares to 1.6 times a year for Austria, so we are probably still behind most of Europe.”
Conflict in Ukraine
The upward trend in traffic this year comes despite the ongoing conflict in Ukraine that has put a stop to the tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians that used to fly to Prague each year and are no longer able to make the journey.
“It has had a big impact on us as before the war started we had 19 weekly flights to airports in the Ukraine in the off-season, and we expected this traffic to grow in 2022,” reveals Pos.
“When it comes to Russia, although traffic to Prague had been down for a couple of years prior to the conflict because of COVID vaccination issues, it has historically been a strong market for us, accounting for more than 1.5 million passengers per annum. To put this in perspective, Moscow was one of the top three destinations served from Prague in 2019 with eight daily flights.
“At the start of the year we estimated that we would recover 50% of this traffic in 2022, but this will obviously no longer be the case.”
Main airline operators
The biggest airlines at Prague Airport today in terms of market share are former charter airline and owner of Czech Airlines, Smartwings, which accounts for around 20% of the traffic.
Indeed, it has 20 B737 aircraft based in Prague, and with the bulk of its passengers booked through a travel operator, Smartwings often accounts for 40% of all passengers handled at the airport during the busy summer months.
The next biggest airlines in Prague in terms of market share are Ryanair (16%), EasyJet (7%), the Lufthansa Group (5.2%) and Eurowings (5%).
Former hub carrier, Czech Airlines, is responsible for just 2% of the traffic today. A far cry from its former lofty position when it was the dominant airline in Prague accounting for up to 60% of all passengers and 20% of the transfer traffic.
Earlier this year, Prague Airport decided to follow the example of other hubs and present its own awards to the airlines that it considered to have been the best operators at the gateway over the past year.
Smartwings won the title of the fastest growing carrier at Václav Havel Airport Prague, while Brussels Airlines was named the most efficient carrier in terms of its performance.
“After a difficult COVID period, we wanted to show our appreciation to those who have contributed the most to the resumption and recovery of our operations,” enthuses Pos.
“At the same time, we want to motivate carriers to pursue further development at Václav Havel Airport Prague.”
Prague Airport’s route network received a major boost in May when Delta Air Lines resumed the gateway’s only non-stop service between the Czech Republic and United States (New York-JFK) after a two-year absence.
Both the inbound and outbound flights are currently operating at near capacity, which Pos says demonstrates both the pent-up demand for travel and the popularity of the route.
In 2021, the US was the largest non-European inbound source market to the Czech Republic with 44,000 visitors, according to data from the Czech Statistical Office. In 2019, almost 600,000 Americans visited the country.
“The resumption of direct flights to New York, which was one of the most attractive long-haul destinations from Prague in 2019, is excellent news,” says Pos. “It will be particularly appreciated by Czech passengers, who will, after a two-year break, gain a convenient and fast connection to the east coast of the United States.”
In the not too distant past, Delta also operated a seasonal service from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta (ATL) and Prague was served by US carriers United (Newark Liberty) and American Airlines (Philadelphia), with the latter due to launch a service from Chicago (ORD) in June 2020 before COVID turned the world upside down.
Other new or resumed routes introduced so far this year include Riyadh (flynas); Kuwait (Jazeera Airways); Baku (Azerbaijan Airlines); Tivat (Air Montenegro); Porto (easyJet); Palermo (Wizz Air); Alicante and Faro (Eurowings); Torino (Ryanair); Santorini and Almeria (Smartwings); Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham (Jet2.com); Luxembourg (Luxair); Reykjavik (Play); and Antalya (SunExpress).
The most popular countries currently served from Prague are Spain, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Egypt and France and Amsterdam, London, Paris, London, Hurghada and Frankfurt remain the most
Looking east, Pos thinks that Asia-Pacific will be a source of traffic growth in the future as Prague was served by a handful of Asian carriers pre-COVID, and he believes that there is much more to come from the region when Asia’s economies begin to pick up.
He is particularly keen to see the return of Korean Air flights from Seoul and China Eastern, Sichuan Airlines and Hainan Airlines services to the Chinese cities of Shanghai, Chengdu and Beijing, respectively, because of the popularity of Prague with Korean and Chinese travellers.
“We believe that whatever changes COVID brings to the industry in terms of its impact on airline route networks and the travelling habits of passengers, there will be good opportunities for us to develop our long-haul routes with smaller capacity aircraft,” says Pos.
“In order to achieve this goal, Prague Airport has decided to further improve its incentive scheme supporting the introduction of new destinations and an overall increase in passenger volumes.”
Pos admits that the airport had originally estimated that it would handle around 8.7 million passengers in 2022, but a stronger than expected traffic recovery and average load factors of 88% has recently led it to revise the figure to around 10.5 million.
Nevertheless, he notes that the airport is always striving to do better, and in a bid to encourage inbound tourism to Prague and the Czech Republic, the airport has signed a Memorandum with CzechTourism and Prague City Tourism on a long-term joint approach to the resumption and expansion of inbound tourism to Prague and the Czech Republic.
All parties believe that tourism will play a major part in driving the Czech Republic’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic growth.
The co-operation also seeks to promote the development and support of sustainable tourism, which will contribute to the positive development of Prague and other regions of the Czech Republic without negatively interfering with everyday life in tourist-exposed places, such as old downtown Prague.
Customer service excellence
Prague Airport has traditionally been a top performer in ACI’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer excellence programme, winning Best Airport in Europe in the 15-25mppa category for the last four years.
Citing some of the reasons he believes that his airport has done so well in recent years, Pos mentions the positive feedback the airport has received for the cleanliness of its toilets and the good work done by its ‘Red Team’ who patrol the terminal daily, monitoring operations and making improvements.
Passengers have also welcomed the installation of additional seating and relaxation areas and the opening of the Runway restaurant, which has significantly enhanced the airport’s F&B offerings.
“The Red Team comprises 10 members of staff dressed in red shirts whose sole job is to walk around the terminal looking for people to help, monitor queues and look at ways to improve passenger flows,” explains Pos.
“This might mean directing the more tech-savvy passengers towards self-service check-in and bag drop machines or simply making travellers aware of the queuing time for security.
“We take customer service very seriously and actively work to improve our service standards and introduce new technology and other service offerings that will enhance the airport experience for our visitors.”
The airport’s efforts to raise the customer service bar include running its own Customer Experience Academy designed to improve “the soft skills” of frontline staff, especially security personnel; producing a series of podcasts aimed at making staff more culturally aware about different nationalities and their travelling habits; and monthly meetings of a ‘customer experience board’ that is 100% focused on ways to improve “the airport product now and in short, medium to long-term”.
He concludes: “The size of the airport ensures quick and easy travel times from kerbside to the gate and vice versa, but there is always room for improvement.”