By Jean Christou
TO SAY the demise of Cyprus Airways (CY) has been a bit of a boon for seat capacity to the island almost six months on might not be kosher but it is exactly what has happened, though industry chiefs caution that filling them might not prove as easy.
Figures provided to the Sunday Mail by airports operator Hermes show that in 2014, before it was shut down last January, Cyprus Airways had 1.12m seats in and out of the island, and carried 758,739 passengers – well below its capacity.
In the six months since, capacity on the ex national carrier’s routes has gone up to 1.18m seats, or an additional 60,000.
Larnaca has seen four new destinations and 20 additional weekly flights on existing routes, while Paphos has added nine new routes and three extra weekly flights on existing routes since January.
The airlines that stepped in to plug the gaps included, Ryanair, Fly Nikki, Wizzair, Qatar Airways, Monarch, Germanwings, Germania, Edelweiss, Sun Express, Air Baltic, Transavia, easyjet and Aegean.
Though no one the Sunday Mail spoke to in the industry would admit on the record that CY’s demise might have been ‘a blessing in disguise’, when it came to discussing the resulting new ‘open skies’ policy, most admitted that the ‘facts appeared to speak for themselves’.
A Cyprus Tourism Organisation (CTO) assessment of the year ahead, made in late April and which was seen by the Sunday Mail, said: “The open skies policy has favoured the Israeli market. There are plenty of flights, mostly to Larnaca, leading to a growth estimate of +30 per cent (90,000 arrivals),” the document said.
It also said France and the Netherlands seemed to benefit from changing carriers, with lower fares, cheaper freight, and better servicing of the market “an overall positive benefit”.
“Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria seem to benefit from increasing flight capacity,” the CTO said, predicting expected increases of 15-20 per cent.
A CTO official confirmed that the changes had been “particularly good” for the Tel Aviv route, which Cyprus Airways had controlled through a bilateral agreement that had given passengers only two options. “When it came to choice of airlines there were two, whereas now there are three,” the official said. “The gap is probably more than covered on certain routes.”
Hermes Airports spokesman Adamos Aspris echoed the fact that CY did have some routes ‘locked’ “especially in the Middle East”, which prevented other airlines from coming in but things had now changed.
“Seat capacity is higher and passenger traffic is higher compared to the same time last year,” Aspris said.
Hoteliers would agree. In their annual report, sent out during the week, Cyprus Hotel Association (PASYXE) addressed the benefits of the new open skies policy saying it had “improved and enhanced” accessibility to the island.
PASYXE Director General Zacharias Ioannides, asked if this was down to the demise of CY said: “It would be unfair to the history of the airline to say that. But it has been encouraging for the country that the loss of the ex national carrier has not left gaps but on the contrary it seems not only has the gap been covered but additional capacity has been provided.”
Aspris cautioned however that increased capacity was all well and good but filling the seats was more important. “If the number of passengers keeps up only then will we be in a position to have a better idea and make comparisons. For the time being there is a very high seat capacity. If we manage to maintain this… but it’s early days yet,” he said.
This is one of the biggest concerns for the industry. If the airlines cannot fill the seats they could reduce capacity or pull out at the drop of a hat.
“The concern is wait to see how many will maintain their schedules by the end of the year,” said Aspris.
This was also a worry for the Association of Cyprus Travel Agents (ACTA). Its president Dinos Kakkouras said more seats should mean lower fares “but most important is to fill all of those seats”.
“If they are still empty by the end of the year there is the possibility of cancelling routes. On Athens for instance there are a lot of seats available and we are worried,” he added.
Kakkouras said the situation on the Tel Aviv routes was “definitely better” but he also said that like Athens, a lot of seats had been added for Germany as numbers from there are expected to recover this year. However Kakkouras said many of them were empty.
Aspris said airlines generally lay on extra capacity with the strategy that if there are more seats, there will be more options for passengers and more bookings will result, or as the famous line from the film Field of Dreams goes: “If you build it they will come”.
“Competition provides additional advantages for travelers, not only in terms of which airline to choose but they also benefit by lower prices,’ said Aspris.
Or do they?
Noel Josephides, chairman of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), and chairman of the UK-based Sunvil Holidays said travellers benefit from lower fares only during the off-season.
Excess capacity in low season fares are competitive, he said, but once you get to the peak times, Easter, summer and Christmas, they tend to be very high as airlines make up for the giveaway offers.
“This causes consternation everywhere. There are people who can only travel in July or August. If they can travel other times of the year it can be really cheap. In the old days there was more of a balance and tour operators were running charter flights but there are none any more. If you wanted to book a family trip to Cyprus right now you would not find anything cheap,” Josephides said.
The closure of Cyprus Airways and the swooping in of multiple airlines with extra capacity was, he said, a double-edged sword for Cyprus.
“Cyprus is now at the mercy of airlines that are purely commercial animals. If for any reason there is not much money or there is too much capacity they will just walk away. Ryanair is a case in point,” he said.
The changed circumstances also means the authorities have to work harder to keep those airlines happy and to offer incentives to make Cyprus attractive to them, hence the constant worry about passenger numbers.
“It will keep them on their toes as it’s an extremely competitive business and you’re dealing with big beasts,” said Josephides. “Airlines now control whole countries.”
Josephides said that with a national carrier a country would always have that backup that would allow authorities to stand up to bullying airlines and he said in that respect CY did provide a lifeline but was certainly not the ideal. “It could not continue as it was,” he said. “It was destroyed by politics. It was an airline that died from many cuts.”
And, as if the final nail was being put in CY’s coffin, the government is on Wednesday due to issue a public call for expressions of interest in purchasing CY’s logo and trademark, which it bought from the airline for €1.2m prior to its closure.