Last month, in a speech to the Belarusian parliament, Alexander Lukashenka expressed dissatisfaction with Belarusian airlines. The president questioned the absence of low-cost flights in Belarus and Belarusians’ extensive use of Vilnius, Warsaw and Kiev airports. This issue – discussed by Belarusians for several years – has been problematised by Lukashenka for the first time.
Companies such as Ryanair and Wizzair find it unprofitable to fly to Minsk airport, and so Belarusians choose to travel to airports in neighbouring countries. According to the administration of Belavia, the Belarusian national carrier, it would be detrimental for their business to welcome cheap flights to the country. As a result, Belarusians choose between Lithuanian, Ukrainian or Polish airports – or seek out rare Belavia online sales.
Why don’t Belarusian airports adapt for low-costs?
Belarusians tend to fly from Vilnius, Kaunas, Kiev or Warsaw to EU destinations or for summer holidays. Over recent years, Belarusians constituted over 10% of visitors to Vilnius airport. Since 2008, when the low-cost Wizzair commenced operations in Ukraine, Belarusians often opt to travel from Kiev. Warsaw and Vilnius airports cooperate with several low-cost companies such as Ryanair or Wizzair in selling cheap tickets all over Europe.
The Belarusian authorities noted that Belarusians often fly from other countries, decreasing the profits of Minsk airport. On 24 April, Lukashenka publicly problematised the low-costs issue in Belarus and the consequent extensive use of the foreign airports. The tendency of Belarusians to travel from foreign airports partly relates to the price policy of the main Belarusian airline, Belavia. For instance, in 2015 alone Belarusian airports lost $15m from Belarusians who instead travelled from the “air hubs” of neighbouring countries, writes BelaPAN. Before that, in 2012, former Belarusian prime minister Mikhail Miasnikovich stated in a meeting of the Council of Ministers that the failing tariff policy of Belarusian airlines pushes Belarusians to travel to neighbouring countries airports.
The management of Minsk National Airport says that low-cost airlines barely correspond to Belarusian standards. For example, the Minsk airport opposes additional charges for luggage. Some experts, however, agree that the leadership of Belavia national airlines tries to avoid increased competition from other airlines that can undercut its prices. In addition, so far Minsk finds itself in a more or less steady position since it has a relatively large flow of transit passengers.
Belavia collects dividends on conflicts in neighbouring countries?
The conflict between Ukraine and Russia, which has caused the cancellation of air connections between the two countries, transformed Minsk airport into a major transit point for travellers between Kiev and Moscow. The management of Minsk airport recognises that about half of the total amount of transit passengers travel from/to Ukraine and Russia. Therefore, Belavia has introduced more flights to Ukrainian airports in Odessa, Kharkiv and Lviv.
A little earlier a similar situation emerged with transit between Russia and Georgia. Belavia fully made use of the conflict between those countries that started in 2008, increasing the number of its flights to Georgia. Given the increased flow of Belarusian tourists to Georgia, this step taken by Belavia has proved very promising.
On the eve of the 2018 summer season, Belavia expected Tbilisi and Batumi to remain popular destinations and raised ticket prices to €400 for a return flight. However, instead of buying expensive tickets from Belavia, Belarusians started to look for flights to Georgia from neighbouring countries or to buy bus tours from Minsk according to reports by the online travel site vandrouki.by.
Visa-free tourism and local airports: an underutilised potential
After the introduction of a visa-free regime, Belarusian airports seems to appear even less interested in low-cost flights. As one of the conditions for visa-free travelling across the whole of Belarus is to arrive through Minsk airport, Belarusian airlines benefit from the visa-free policy. Belavia, the fully state-owned company, becomes more optimistic because of a constant increase in the number of tourists who come to the country on a visa-free regime. More than 80,000 foreigners visited Belarus in 2017 under the visa regime which allows visitors to spend five days in Belarus without a visa provided they enter via Minsk airport.
However, the number of tourists would increase if travel costs fell and if the scheme were applied to all Belarusian regional airports. Airports in Hrodna, Brest, Homiel, Vitebsk and Mahiliou together serve only 100,000 people annually. Currently, Hrodna and Brest airports offer only a few flights to Russia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Turkey. At the same time, only Hrodna airport has been included as part of the visa-free regime (from January 2018).
Investing in the development of other regional airports and widening the visa-free zone might not only attract more tourists but also give a profit from short-destination flights. Cheap routes to Poland or Lithuania from the local airports might become the main source of income considering the popularity of these destinations.
Developing local airports in line with a low-cost strategy would increase competition between the airlines and might result in better services for passengers. At the sane time, by losing its monopoly on short-haul destinations, Belavia could focus on the long-haul flights and transit passengers, while local airports will increase their profits by managing multiple short-haul flights. Alternatively, the management of Belarusian airlines may further restrict competition and access for cheap airlines but most of the benefits from such a strategy would accrue to neighbouring countries.