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AVIORADAR - Croatian aviation website

INTERVIEW: Huseyin Bahadir Bedir - President and CEO of MZLZ Jsc.

Written by: Bruno Habus.

Huseyin Bahadir Bedir

The fact that the aviation industry is unpredictable and one of the most sensitive to economic change was very clear during the Covid-19 virus pandemic. However, the recovery in the aviation industry sector is visible, and after a long period of uncertainty and poor results in the form of passenger traffic, the "light at the end of the tunnel" is finally visible.

However, in the midst of the pandemic, Franjo Tuđman Airport received a long-awaited addition to its offer - low-cost carriers. Ryanair is very optimistic about the number of passengers, so it expects the recovery of ZL Franjo Tuđman in 2022.

We had the opportunity to talk to the President of the Management Board and the CEO of MZLZ Jsc. about the current state of the aviation industry, traffic expectations, and the impact of the pandemic on plans to expand Zagreb Airport (Zagreb Airport concessionaire), Huseyn Bahadir Bedir.

 

 

Since the beginning, the MZLZ concessionaire has been working on a quality connection of Zagreb with the world, mainly by so-called legacy carrier flights, while low cost carriers did not open lines. If there was no pandemic and the drastic drop in traffic, would low-cost carriers like Ryanair have had the opportunity to open a base in ZAG, or has the Ryanair base been used for faster recovery from the effects of the pandemic?

We are collaborating with our partner airlines as much as we can, to re-establish the flights despite the low demand. Moreover, we have published a new and aggressive incentive model by the beginning of this year, to encourage airlines operate from/to untapped markets. We are glad that our efforts have been welcomed by the aviation industry and the biggest airline in Europe, Ryanair, decided to partner with Zagreb Airport. Ryanair’s contribution will help a lot to speed up the recovery from the effects of the pandemic.

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Due to the pandemic, long-haul lines from Zagreb were temporarily or completely disrupted. We are witnessing how Air Canada announced its return in the summer season of 2022, while Flydubai returned on the route to Dubai. When is the return of previous traffic numbers expected (in terms of the return of carriers on long haul flights, specifically Emirates, Air Transat, Korean Air)? Are there announcements for new long-haul lines?

We are continuously in contact with many carriers around the world, to evaluate the market conditions, to understand airlines’ needs and to inform them about the opportunities at Zagreb. But due to the confidentiality and business ethics purposes, we cannot disclose such information prior to the other party’s consent.

It is no secret that restoring mid and long-haul flights depend mostly on the border restrictions imposed by the respective countries. Zagreb Airport had significant number of passengers from Far-east Asia, Australia and N. America directly and indirectly. Re-establishing those connections depend on the countries’ border crossing policies. We expect this to happen gradually between 2022 and 2025.

 

Is there a possibility of other low-cost carriers coming to Zagreb?

Zagreb Airport is a capital city airport in EU, subject to strict regulations. As an airport operator, we provide fair and equal conditions for every airline with the aim to increase the air traffic activity as much as possible. It is the airlines’ commercial decision either to operate to/from Zagreb Airport or not.

 

During the opening of the route from Newark to Dubrovnik, United Airlines management commented that they are exploring the possibility of opening routes to "other cities in Croatia". Is there MZLZ’s intention to establish direct flights to the USA?

We are constantly in contact with carriers all around the world, to increase air traffic activity at Zagreb Airport and US market is no exception. We are working on establishing direct connection between US and Zagreb but the decision to launch a route is an airline’s commercial decision ultimately.

 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Zagreb Airport tried to provide passengers with as much contactless experience as possible through the airport, and where this was not possible, the area was expanded so that passengers could maintain a distance (e.g. passport control). Are there any plans to install automatic self-service terminals for passport control or automatic terminals for scanning boarding passes, i.e. boarding itself?

Installation of self-service terminals for passport control is the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior, while the airport will provide the necessary technical support in the preparation process. The installation of automatic terminals for scanning boarding passes before security control is being considered.

 

In accordance with the announcements of the concessionaire, as well as the details of the concession agreement known to the public, the concessionaire is obliged to increase the capacity of the passenger building, i.e. to expand it. The first number of reached passengers on which the concessionaire should increase the capacity of the terminal was 3.5 million passengers when 2 baggage carousels were added, one in the sorting room and one in the baggage claim area. What are the expansion plans for the next passenger “milestone,” that is, for 5 million passengers?

By the Concession Agreement, the milestone of 5 million passengers annually triggers start of the 2nd Phase of the New Passenger Terminal.

The 2nd Phase shall include full completion of the baggage handling system: increase to total number of 60 check-in counters, installation of 5th baggage delivery belt and 4th baggage sorting carousel.

At the start of the Phase 2, the extension of the one pier is planned to increase the size of international gates lounge space. Some internal terminal rearrangements may be also required to accommodate for the increased traffic.      

 

When can we expect the installation of additional check-in counters, i.e. an increase from 30 to 45, and finally to 60 counters? In addition, when is the installation of the last, fifth luggage carousel planned?

As answered to the previous question, the increase to 60 check-in counters and installation of the 5th delivery belt is planned for the 5 million milestone and start of the 2nd NPT Phase.

However, intermediate phase including increase of the number of check-in counters to the 45 pieces may be required after the 3,5 mil. passenger’s milestone, depending on the requirement to keep the optimum service level regarding check-in queuing time and availability. 

 

Ryanair announced rapid growth in passenger numbers. At the last press conference, CEO Michael O'Leary announced that ZAG, in cooperation with Ryanair, will have 3.5 million passengers in 2022, more than 6 million passengers in 2023, and in 2024 more than 7 million passengers. Do you think that the realization of such numbers of passengers is realistic, and if so, does that mean that at the end of next year the concessionaire will start increasing the capacity of the passenger building?

Ryanair has released its own estimates. International Zagreb Airport does not want or can prefer one carrier over another. Business and cooperation terms between the airlines and the airport are transparent, non-discriminatory, and published on the official website. We will make decisions in accordance with our expansion plans, considering maintaining the level of service quality to all our customers.

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What will be the final capacity of the passenger building after all the planned expansions? Will the terminal be able to “withstand”, as O’Leary announced, over 10 million passengers in the next 5-6 years?

The NPT is designed with 5 million passenger’s capacity in the 1st Phase and 8 million passengers’ capacity after 2nd Phase extensions, keeping the optimum passenger service level all the time.

However, the terminal could probably service even bigger traffic depending on the scheduled times of flights with maybe some impact to the service level and passenger satisfaction.

 

At one time, a photograph was circulating in the public showing a plan to expand the terminal. Is it still relevant and if so, are there any predictions as to which year the expansion of each phase should start?

The photo is taken from the currently valid MZLZ Masterplan, as approved by the Concession Grantor. The start of the subphases is planned in accordance with the traffic milestones – Phase 2A is planned at 5 mil. pax, Phase 2B at 6,1 mil. pax, Phase 2C at 7,3 mil. pax, and the final Phase 2D should start no later than 2032.

The Concessionaire is however required to revise its Masterplan every 5 years. This is necessary to consider the changes of traffic trends – the change of the airlines, flights and passenger’s profile, the change of aircraft fleet and general changes in aviation industry. The new regulations may need to be taken for, as also the experience gained at the existing facility. All these changes may impact the final layout and phasing by the time each milestone in reached, while all changes should be approved by the Concession Grantor.     

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At the last presentation of the Airbus A220 in Zagreb, which took place at the premises of old passenger terminal, journalists and the public had the opportunity to see how the old terminal, although closed, has retained its shape and infrastructure. Are there any plans in the future that would include the use of the old passenger terminal for the purpose of passengers traffic or cargo?

As you know, the general aviation is still handled at the old terminal.

There were some considerations for the old terminal to be used for cargo traffic but since the building was not originally designed for this purpose, this option would require heavy reconstructions.

Some other facilities like the offices, staff canteen and storage space are still used and some events are held occasionally in the terminal, but the most of the building is currently maintained for any potential requirement of the passenger traffic, although the future might also bring conversion of some building parts into commercial or social usage.

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According to ASQ research, Zagreb Airport was named the best airport of 2-5 million passengers. This is a consequence of investments in passenger infrastructure (catering facilities, procurement of new buses and aircraft service equipment, arrangement of an additional VIP lounge, etc.). Can passengers expect further improvements in the travel experience at Zagreb Airport in the future?

Yes, despite challenging times reflected in a significant reduction in passenger numbers and operations, passengers and users of Zagreb Airport services awarded the airport with high marks for three years in a row, through regular research on the quality service ACI / ASQ (Airports Council International – Airport Service Quality)

The Airport Service Quality (ASQ) runs a global program to assess passenger satisfaction with airport services through 37 key performance indicators. The field program is conducted throughout the year by ASQ certification agents, interviewing passengers at airports through a single ACI / ASQ query. According to this relevant research, Zagreb Airport was named the best airport in Europe in the group of airports size of 2 to 5 million passengers per year (Best Airport in Europe by size and region) in 2018, 2019 and 2020. This makes us proud that our significant efforts in 2020 ensured the best possible service in these demanding circumstances, with special consideration of the health of our employees, passengers, and other customers, have been recognized.

We are listening the expectations of our passengers continuously through monitoring the quality of services as well as monitoring the user experience in direct communication with passengers. We are also adjusting development plans to maintain the high marks which passengers are giving us.

 

Are you working to increase cargo traffic? Can Zagreb Airport expect greater development in terms of cargo traffic in the future, and is there a possibility of increasing the existing or building a new cargo terminal?

Existing cargo warehouse space is enough to handle cargo traffic at Zagreb Airport. Cargo warehouse operator is constantly working on improvement of existing facilities with new technology to increase the capacity within the existing facility. Depending on the demand, more space reservation and even new or second warehouse can always be considered in future.

 

In July this year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution stating that the Republic of Croatia is ready to enter the Schengen area, and the Government announced that official entry into Schengen is expected perhaps as early as 2022. How will the Zagreb Airport terminal prepare for the new regulations, i.e. the passenger flow? Will this include major infrastructure works?

Namely, the terminal is currently configured in such a way that there is more content for international passengers, i.e. those who went over passport control. Upon entering the Schengen area, only a few flights from ZAG will require passport control (in the current flight schedule - Belgrade, Moscow, Dubai, Toronto, London, Tel Aviv, Kiev. Will the area currently used for domestic flights be used for non-Schengen flights and the area currently used for international flights for Schengen and domestic flights? In that scenario, non-Schengen users would not have the opportunity to use the Prime Class lounge, restaurants, etc.

Schengen conversion had been originally planned during the NPT design stage and was further developed during the Republic of Croatia Schengen evaluation process, with the plan being approved by the national and EU authorities.

The plan does not envision simple switch of the spaces. To describe the plan in simple – all commercial areas like duty-free/paid shops, restaurants, caffe bars and lounge will be accessible by both Schengen and non-Schengen passengers and later non-Schengen passengers will go through passport control at the pier before boarding their aircraft either at bridge position or through a bus gate.

 

Ryanair announces basing of up to 5 aircraft already in the summer season of 2022. With the current Croatia Airlines’ fleet, depending on the number of based aircraft, the largest number of simultaneously based aircraft could be over 20 (with occasional basing of Trade Air and ETF Airways even larger). Will a larger number of based aircraft make a "crowd" at the new parking lot, or will MZLZ decide to park the aircraft at the old parking lot and do passenger boarding by buses?

Zagreb Airport regularly uses the west and east apron for daily operations and aircraft parking. As usual, the allocation of resources will take place according to the flight schedule at both stands, ensuring equal conditions for all airlines.

 

Prior to the arrival of the concessionaire, Zagreb Airport was also known for accepting small private aircraft, the number of which was drastically reduced by increasing fees (fees for landing small private aircraft can reach over € 100). Is there a concessionaire's initiative for more acceptable prices for private aircraft, considering that Zagreb Airport is the only airport in the area all the way to Rijeka or Osijek which provides the JET A-1 refuelling service?

We believe that our prices are correct. As you already know, regulated airport fees are charged according to the weight of the aircraft and the number of departing passengers. According to the calculation in compliance with the valid price list of the MZLZ for an aircraft weighing 2t and one passenger on an international flight, the total price is EUR 63.17. Let us point out that parking the aircraft at the TGA parking lot for the first four hours is free of charge.

 

Pilots often noticed that the FTM VGDS (Visual Guidance Docking System) at the new stand had technical limitations and was not automated. Is there a plan to improve and automate the VGDS?

The current existing FTM VDGS system meets all the prescribed standards and, for now, we are not considering the option of replacing it. We could consider that option in one of the future phases of airport development.

 

We would like to thank Mr. Huseyn Bahadir Bedir for the time spent for this interview.

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