Estonian Air was the national airline of Estonia, established by the Estonian state in 1991 following the restoration of Estonian independence. The Estonian state maintained a majority (97.34%) shareholding. Estonian Air operated scheduled service to over 15 destinations in Europe as well as charter service on behalf of tour companies to leisure destinations in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The carrier suspended service operations on 08-Nov-2015, due to an order from the European Commission seeking Estonian to pay back state aid, amounting to EUR85 million.
Location of Estonian Air main hub (Tallinn Lennart Meri Airport)
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Estonia’s national carrier has dropped its ambitions to develop extensive hub operations at Tallinn Airport and appointed Jan Palmér as the new CEO to scale down the airline’s network and halt mounting losses. The small regional carrier in 2011 adopted a new network model, shifting its traditional focus on point-to-point markets to a network strategy based around feeding transfer traffic within Europe and to and from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region. The core goal was twofold: to increase the number of destinations and frequencies from Estonia, and to do so with a sustainable profit in the medium term.
To underpin Estonian Air’s new strategy, the Estonian government in Dec-2011 decided to invest an additional EUR30 million in the airline, increasing its ownership from 90% to 97.34%. It also endorsed the revamp of the carrier’s entire fleet of narrowbody and regional jets with Embraer E-Jets.
International Airlines Group (IAG), formed by the merger of British Airways (BA) and Iberia in Jan-2011, is facing increased Spanish headwinds as its largest single shareholder is in need of a massive bailout from the Spanish Government. Bankia’s parent company Banco Financiero y de Ahorros (BFA) holds 12.09% of the share capital of IAG and has asked the Spanish Government for a EUR23.5 billion rescue to cover exposures to real estate, deteriorating loans and accounting discrepancies. The embattled banking conglomerate has already announced it will divest several assets and its IAG shareholding is one of the assets being considered for sale.
At the closing the London Stock Exchange on 30-May-2012 IAG’s market capitalisation was GBP2.6 billion (EUR3.2 billion), valuing the BFA-Bankia stake in the airline group at GBP312 million (EUR390 million).
airBaltic’s restructuring plan fittingly dubbed 'ReShape' is in full swing now, but the loss-making Latvian national carrier is facing increasing competition from its northern counterpart Estonian Air, which is copying airBaltic’s model. The tactic is not surprising as Estonian Air’s president and CEO Tero Taskila was airBaltic’s former CCO and helped implement the carrier’s shift from point-to-point operator to a network airline based around feeding transfer traffic between Western Europe and markets in Eastern Europe, the Nordic region, Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Middle East.
Ironically, airBaltic is currently moving away from a stringent focus on transfer traffic over its “North Hub Riga” at Riga International Airport to a more point-to-point approach as part of its drive to return to profitability and build a sustainable long-term business. Too much transfer traffic and a testing public dispute between the airline’s two main shareholders, which resulted in a decline in customer loyalty, brought airBaltic uncomfortably close to bankruptcy last year.
The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are seeing rapid low-cost carrier growth, especially in their key market of Scandinavia. The very small or non-existent domestic markets in the Baltic nations means the local carriers are reliant almost entirely on international operations, where they must compete against foreign carriers. Like the rest of Europe, the most pronounced competition comes from LCCs.
Estonian Air and airBaltic are the key carriers of the region but foreign budget carriers such as Ryanair, Wizz Jet and Flybe are increasing their presence in the Baltic market in order to tap into the burgeoning traffic volumes.
Wizz Air opened its 14th base in Vilnius, Lithuania, on 16-Apr-2011. Wizz Air’s expansion comes as Ryanair also expands in the Lithuanian market, with six new routes to be launched to/from Vilnius in May-2011. The entry of two of Europe’s largest LCCs has resulted in airBaltic downsizing its presence at Vilnius “due to crowding” in the market. Vilnius remains the second-busiest airport in the Baltic region, behind Riga International Airport.
Estonian Air’s Chairman, Joakim Helenius, has indicated the carrier plans to develop a new route plan using Vilnius (Lithuania) and airports in Poland as layover points for services into western Europe. The carrier has already trialled Tallinn-Vilnius-Amsterdam services, achieving average load factors of 83%, including a record 90% average in Jul-2010. Using the scheme will allow the carrier to operate daily services to Paris, London, Milan, Rome and other western European routes. Some profitable direct services, such as Moscow, Brussels and Copenhagen will be retained. Estonian Air hopes to announce further details of the strategy in early Feb-2011.