Serbia connected to the United States again

Nonstop service resumed between Belgrade, Serbia and New York City’s JFK airport today when Air Serbia’s Airbus A330-200 operating flight 500 touched down just before noon. The new service is the carrier’s first transatlantic route, operates using the company’s only A330 (named Nikola Tesla) and will fly between the two cities 5x weekly, resuming a connection which last operated in the early 1990s. But the most intriguing part about the new service is, to me, just how it all came together.

Air Serbia is 49% owned by Etihad which invested in JAT, the failed flag carrier. Etihad has a five year window in which it will execute control over the airline and that has led to some interesting deals amongst the “Equity Partner” airlines where the Abu Dhabi-based carrier is an investor. While the level of control and integration varies among the seven this particular route has all sorts of cooperation to make things happen. In a letter published in The National. a daily newspaper in the UAE, Etihad CEO James Hogan offers up some details on the cooperation involved to get to this point:

The Airbus A330 has been leased from Jet Airways; the pilots were trained by Alitalia; and the cabin crew were trained in Abu Dhabi. Together, the Etihad Airways family rallied around to help make this happen.

Alitalia has seconded pilots to Air Serbia to help get the route launched while Etihad is supporting the operation through flight data monitoring and by sending three flight instructors over to aid in the training. Alitalia handles engineering services for the aircraft while Etihad will provide ground handling in JFK. And Etihad coordinated the retrofit of the cabin and entertainment system, including the addition of the wifi service operated by Panasonic Avionics. That level of cooperation – or collusion or evasion of various regulations and route authorities, depending on who you ask – is very impressive. Or, to one competing airline exec, “BURNING MONEY!!”

Speaking of the wifi service, I was at Panasonic’s office in Southern California earlier in the week and while waiting for a meeting outside one of the buildings with test labs for the portal services I happened to connect to the Air Serbia test network. Expect to see connectivity packages priced both by duration and with a megabyte cap. It will not be cheap to stay connected. One passenger on the eastbound inaugural tonight already reported buying a second “full flight” pass to stay active on social media.

Inflight internet pricing on Air Serbia's A330
Inflight internet pricing on Air Serbia’s A330
Inflight internet pricing on Air Serbia's A330
Inflight internet pricing on Air Serbia’s A330
Inflight internet pricing on Air Serbia's A330
Inflight internet pricing on Air Serbia’s A330

The big question now is what impact this route will have on the overall market, especially for the three major alliances and their transatlantic joint venture operations. The three groups still control north of 70% of all traffic across the North Atlantic, though new and expanding service from other carriers is affecting things negatively for those airlines. Then again, early indications from the US carriers for Q2 ’16 are that the TATL results aren’t as weak as expected. Perhaps a balance will be found for coexistence.

Also, if you read Serbian, a pretty cool liveblog of the inbound flight.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

One Comment

  1. I think that airline executive is right: the cost of launching this flight — and the losses it will generate — seem staggering to me. I commented on this on Flyertalk.

    The A330 seems like a monstorously large plane to fly this long thin route. And the amount of money they spent to get the route up and running sounds incredible. Due to the odd schedule, they don’t even have any feed for the flight in Belgrade.

    It’s also worth noting that USA to Eastern Europe nonstop seems like a bad business, since there are almost no such flights. Ironically, Emirates is trying to launch service from Budapest (which, while a consistently unsuccessful route, makes about 10x more sense than Belgrade).

    This activity seems to confirm the US airlines’ campaign against the Middle East Airlines: they do things that for-profit airlines couldn’t and wouldn’t possibly do.

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