Air Serbia becomes one of Europe’s fastest-growing flag carriers
Few established airlines can boast of having increased their passenger numbers by almost 50% in 2023 compared to the pre-pandemic 2019, while at the same time expanding their network with 23 new destinations in a single calendar year. However, Serbia’s fast-growing national carrier did just that. The airline achieved wide-ranging growth in all key metrics last year, building up its hub in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.
During 2023, Air Serbia handled 4.19 million passengers, its best result on record. It operated 45,000 flights, up 44.8% on 2019, and maintained operations on 87 routes to 34 countries across Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa.
Dynamic market and risk taking paying off
Air Serbia used the coronavirus pandemic and geopolitics to capitalise on a number of evolving developments on the global aviation market.
The Serbian carrier was quick to restore operations following the height of the global health emergency in 2020 and use affordable aircraft leasing rates to grow its fleet. The relatively lax approach to the coronavirus pandemic in Serbia, coupled with one of the quickest vaccination roll-outs in Europe for the entire population as early as February 2021, saw locals willing to travel to markets where entry was permitted early on, fuelling a quick recovery in the local air travel sector.
The covid pandemic also aided Air Serbia’s long-haul operations to New York. While nationals from most European countries were unable to enter the US, those who spent two weeks in Serbia could fly onwards to the US without restrictions. The success of its New York JFK flights led the airline to inaugurate services to Chicago ORD in May 2023.
Although Serbia is a candidate to join the European Union, it is one of the few European countries not to impose sanctions onto Russia and Air Serbia continues to maintain operations to Moscow SVO, St Petersburg, Sochi and Kazan. While flights to Russia account for just 4.7% of Air Serbia’s total operations in 2023, and its capacity on the Russian market is significantly smaller than the likes of Turkish Airlines and Emirates, the lack of availability and options have seen Air Serbia become a popular choice for Russian transfer passengers.
Finally, Serbia is one of the few European countries whose citizens do not require a visa to travel to China, and vice versa. This has seen an influx of travel-starved Chinese tourists visit the country in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. As a result, the Serbian carrier took the risk, launching operations to Tianjin in China in December 2022 while virus-related restrictions were still in place in the Asian country and most European carriers were wary of resuming services to Far East Asia due to a lack of demand. However, Air Serbia’s gamble paid off, with strong passenger and cargo loads recorded on the route.
Air Serbia’s main market remains western Europe
Air Serbia has been diversifying its network over the past two years. In addition to flights to China, it launched operations to Cairo in Egypt, Tel Aviv in Israel and significantly expanded its presence in Türkiye, complementing its multiple daily flights to Istanbul IST with services to Ankara and Izmir.
However, western European markets remain the airline’s busiest. They continue to be the most in demand with local travellers but are also home to the largest Serbian expat populations. Furthermore, the airline has been positioning itself as a transfer carrier from western markets to southeastern Europe.
Overall, Air Serbia maintains the most flights to neighbouring Montenegro, which is understandable considering the close family, economic and cultural ties between the two countries and its people, with both having been a part of a single union for almost 90 years until 2006.
Leisure demand soars
Air Serbia has capitalised on the growing demand for leisure travel on the local market in recent years. In addition to its scheduled flights, the carrier also operates a significant number of charters during the summer for the local population, who book holiday packages with tour operators and are then flown to their destinations by Air Serbia. These are primarily to holiday hotspots in Greece, Türkiye and Egypt.
Since the pandemic, Air Serbia adjusted its strategy by initiating scheduled services to popular holiday destinations, resulting in the introduction of multiple new routes to Greece and Türkiye.
The surge in demand for leisure travel to destinations less commonly visited by Serbian travellers, including Spain, Italy, and Portugal, in the wake of the pandemic has led Air Serbia to launch eleven new routes within these three markets over the past two years.
Further growth on the horizon
Air Serbia is not showing signs of slowing down in 2024. The airline has earmarked the year for further long-haul expansion, with plans to double its wide-body A330-200 fleet from the existing two to four units by mid-2024 and launch flights to Shanghai PVG and Guangzhou. This will be followed by the introduction of a third destination in North America in 2025, with either Toronto YYZ or Miami to be inaugurated.
The airline has plans to expand its short-haul network during 2024. Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been announced as its first new route of the year, to launch in April. Additional new destinations are to be announced in the coming weeks.
The carrier has said it will work on densifying its network during the year, adding more frequencies on key routes which will in turn help feed its long-haul network.
Air Serbia’s aim is to serve 100 destinations by 2027, when Serbia marks the centenary of commercial aviation in the country. Based on the existing growth and plans, it is on track to achieve its goal ahead of schedule.