But we must add that he is also a person who, although he went to the west where they recognized his expertise, finds it extremely difficult to experience the bad things that happen in aviation in his homeland Croatia.
More about himself, his life path, aviation in Europe and Croatia we talk with Dean Boljunčić, Head of Aviation Development and Partnership at Eindhoven Airport in the Netherlands.
Who is Dean Boljunčić?
First of all, I am an aviation enthusiast and a family man. The work I do is very fulfilling and I love every working day because something new can be learned in aviation every day. A person who says he knows everything actually knows very little. I am a supporter of the saying that the higher you climb a mountain, the more space you can (must) explore. Of course, my family is my biggest support and motivation because I made all the important life decisions together with the family and for the sake of the family. Personally, I am a sports fan in general, an ardent fan of Roma and PSV, and when my obligations allow it, I like to relax with a bike ride.
Entering the world of aviation
In fact, it all started back in high school, when I applied for the position of military pilot together with my best friend. Out of some 1,200 candidates, only 10 of us met all the criteria and we enrolled in the first year of college in Zagreb. When I approached selective flying in Zadar and when I felt the beauty of flying first hand, there was no going back. Because, once flying gets under your skin, it's hard to get out of it :-)
Your journey to Eindhoven
After leaving the Croatian Air Force, where I had the rank of lieutenant and was an active helicopter pilot and flight instructor in Zadar, I got a job at Pula Airport as an aircraft balancer (W&B officer). I soon progressed to the so-called head of traffic (duty manager), and later to the head of the Transport Sector (COO). The then-new director, Mr. Radmilo, promoted me to head of the Commercial Sector (CCO) and in this position, where one of my main responsibilities was contracting new flights, routes and cooperation with airlines, I met a lot of people from the world of aviation. Various international companies have obviously recognized my work and knowledge, which was seen in the great growth of Pula Airport, so, among other things, I received an offer for the position of Head of Route Development at Eindhoven Airport. The airport had less than 5 million passengers before my arrival (2016), while in 2019 we had just over 6.7 million passengers. As I already had a close family in the Netherlands, my family and I decided to take this important step in life. So far we are very satisfied, and in the meantime, I have been promoted to the position of Head of Aviation Development & Partnerships, my wife got a permanent job as a teacher in a Dutch school, which is her profession, and the children are already going to school and kindergarten. Therefore, we can say that the decision to leave was the right one.
The rapid growth of air traffic, which had its peak in 2019, was abruptly stopped and set back by the COVID - 19 pandemic. The damage is enormous. When do you expect a full recovery and how do you see the future of air transport globally?
In Eindhoven, I expect a full recovery as early as 2023 due to the excellent traffic structure focused on the leisure market (around 50%), the VFR market (22%), and the rest on the business market. Precisely because of this "healthy" traffic structure, we expect a faster recovery from other airports. This can also be seen in various reports from ACI. Honestly, I don’t see any major changes in the global market caused by the COVID crisis. However, I see big changes in the direction of environmental protection, various restrictions, and new standards at airports and airlines. I believe that environmental standards and criteria need to be improved in terms of protection against noise and emissions. Inevitably, in the near future, airlines using older aircraft will pay higher prices at European airports. For example, Eindhoven Airport itself is the only airport (as far as I know) that can only be used by aircraft that meet the Chapter 4 standard (from 2007), and our aspiration is to have only those aircraft that meet the Chapter 14 standard from 2017.
How successful will 2021 be in Eindhoven?
"Successful" is a bit too difficult a term because it will certainly not be successful compared to 2019, but it will be much better than 2020. We must be satisfied with the recovery if we see results in the second half of the year, which will average 75% of 2019 by the number of passengers, i.e. about 85% by the number of operations. Currently, in October, our average LF is around 88% or an average of 157 passengers per flight, which is above all expectations.
We are witnessing countries in this crisis helping their national airlines while, on the other hand, other carriers have no help. How do you comment on this inequality, as well as the fact that in Europe airports have also not received aid, but have been put at the mercy of the market?
This is one of the main topics in the ACI Economics Committee where I represent Eindhoven Airport. There is great inequality within the sector, and what I consider even worse is the pressure and blackmail that airlines are exerting on airports to reduce their prices. In this situation, airports are doubly deprived, on the one hand very little or no aid is received from the state, and then the beneficiaries of large state aid threaten the airports to reduce their prices. The revenues of airports also largely depend on the number of passengers, which is why I believe that the protection of airports from aggressive beneficiaries of state aid is very much needed.
Airports in the Republic of Croatia are not unknown to you. What is your opinion about their work and where do you see opportunities for improvement? What could be done better and what are the biggest problems?
It is difficult to generalize because in my work I have met a lot of people of great quality and ability, but unfortunately also the complete opposite ones, who work in management positions at airports in HR. I believe that long-term planning in strategic, financial, and infrastructural terms should definitely be improved, and the standard of environmental protection should be increased.
In the last four years, which I spent in Eindhoven, I learned a lot about the organization itself, long-term planning, controlling, and the attitude of top management towards the rest of the workers. That is actually the key to success and mutual trust. Specifically in Eindhoven, we have TP (Tactical plan) and BP (Business plan), which show five-year and four-year planning of all revenues by months, as well as planned expenditures, with an emphasis on CAPEX and OPEX. My experience in Croatia was planning exclusively on an annual, and sometimes ad-hoc level, which I now consider absolutely unacceptable, while I used to consider it normal financial planning.
On the other hand, one of the most important conditions for the realization of such plans and strategies is that professional and quality people are placed in management positions, from top to middle management. Eindhoven Airport is in the RSG system (Royal Schiphol Groep), along with Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brisbane (Australia), JFK (Terminal 4), and Hobart (Tasmania), and all follow the same management model. This management model is very different from the management model in Croatia and, in my opinion, it is immeasurably more efficient, both for the owners and for the workers themselves. One example is that the CEO of Eindhoven sits and works alongside all the other workers and does not have his own office at all.
While in Croatia, a worker, a colleague, has to make an appointment in order to come to the office of most CEOs, and then literally has to go through a few doors and pass by several CEOs' personal assistants to enter the office.
Croatia Airlines is a bottomless pit in which enormous money has been invested, only to cover the losses caused by catastrophic management, which has been going on for decades. There is almost nothing left of its property. It is very likely that there will be a lack of money even after this year. The management publishes 'fairy tales' about the purchase of new aircraft, while aircraft manufacturers are coming to Zagreb Airport and performing promotional flights. In your opinion, is the rejuvenation of the fleet likely, and in what way?
This is a very difficult topic and I honestly do not know what the strategy of Croatia Airlines is, i.e. their purpose. If the company is a strategic national carrier, which wants to play a significant role in the aviation sector in Croatia, I think that the renewal of the fleet is very necessary and useful. With rising fuel prices, which according to some data amount to about 30% of total operating costs, with announced higher prices at airports amounting to about 7% of total costs, fleet renewal is needed to ensure the future and survival. Fleet renewal alone can directly affect about 40% of total costs, which is certainly not negligible. It is difficult for me to comment on the best way to renew the fleet because I am not familiar with the offers of aircraft manufacturers, as well as with the financial capabilities of Croatia Airlines.
Your beginnings in civil aviation were in Pula. How do you see Pula Airport in 10 years?
Pula certainly has great potential for development, which was shown in the last 10 years when passenger traffic increased by more than 100%, which certainly did not happen by accident. I think that Pula still has room for recovery from the crisis, and then for progress not only in the number of passengers, but in general in the importance of Pula Airport for the region, internal organization, partnership development (Stakeholders management), and increasing total revenues. Of course, this will largely depend on the strategy, knowledge, and vision of the Pula Airport management.
Your expertise has been recognized in Europe. Were there any offers in Croatia?
Yes, there were offers from Croatia, but at that time they were not satisfactory to me. I do not mean in financial terms because finances have never been my main motive and priority.
Is there a chance to see Dean in a leading role in Croatia?
I would never rule out that possibility, but before that, some things should change in terms of values and responsibilities in business, as well as the management model itself.
We last saw each other in Hanover at a conference where airports and carriers connect and new routes are being arranged. How important is it to be present at such conferences and are you satisfied with the presence and activity of Croatian aviation companies?
Attendance at such conferences is very important because once you are not present, you are very easily forgotten. It is also very important to meet with colleagues from other airports. There is always something to be learned from them, as well as to develop a strategy on how to attract a particular airline. Especially in this time of crisis when we all want to return to the situation from 2019. I more or less constantly see colleagues from Croatian airports and we are always happy to talk, exchange opinions and give some advice. Only recently I have not seen Croatia Airlines actively participate in Routes conferences, which surprised me because by attending such conferences you can gain a lot and lose very little.
Apart from Roma and PSV, you also support a club in American football that is as successful as the Croatian economy. Where does the love for this sport come from?
Yes, the New York Jets and the NFL are my soft spots. I fell in love with the NFL and the Jets on my first visit to New York, when I watched the Play-Off with my family who live there and supports the Jets. Unfortunately, it was the last Play-Off in which the Jets participated. Every new season I hope it will finally be our season, but after the first few games, my hopes burst like a bubble and I return to reality.
Who's the boss in the house?
As a real alpha male in our house, mine is always the last: "Yes, darling."