Air Serbia CEO Jiri Marek
Air Serbia CEO Jiri Marek

CEO Talks: Air Serbia CEO Jiri Marek on Long Haul Expansion

Air Serbia is adding a second Airbus A330-200 in October to its fleet as it plans to launch new services to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) as well as to China.

I had a great chat with Air Serbia CEO Jiri Marek at the company’s head office in Belgrade, where he explains the possibilities and challenges.

“Taking a second widebody aircraft is a big deal for a regional airline of our size,” he stated. Air Serbia serves one long-haul route from Belgrade to New York JFK six times per week, using a sole Airbus A330-200 aircraft. “We are very satisfied with the performance of our A330-200, because flying just to one long-haul destination with just one aircraft is quite challenging,” Marek said.

Air Serbia will add new 2X-weekly services from its Belgrade hub to Chicago O’Hare from April 2023, as well as one weekly service to Tianjin in China. The airline plans to increase frequencies to New York JFK during the winter season.

“Our New York JFK operation is profitable and, combined with the new opportunities in China and expansion in the U.S., it was an easy decision to go for the second aircraft,”

Air Serbia CEO Jiri Marek

The aircraft, a former South African Airways A330-200, will be leased from Aircastle and will operate predominantly on flights to China.

“But we have much bigger plans once COVID restrictions are lifted in China,” Marek said. He did not rule out the window of opportunity for a third A330 when China COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted.

a plane on the runway
Wikimedia Commons/Adam Moreira (AEMoreira042281)

However, China operations remain limited so far. “But we want to fly Beijing and Shanghai in the future,” Marek said. “These destinations so far are restricted by COVID regulations.”

Tianjin, in northern China, has been indicated as an option, but maybe not only as an interim solution. Other international carriers explored Tianjin as a destination for the longer term, especially with cargo. “However, the market is quite volatile and dynamic, you have to be flexible,” Marek said.

Marek does not rule out serving all these destinations in China. A lot of traffic flow between China and Europe is currently limited, he said, and some routes remain complicated regarding closed air spaces over certain geographies in a direction to Asia. “The geographical position of Belgrade opens new opportunities and route alternatives to Asia,” Marek said. “Air Serbia is ready to explore them.”

Regarding flights to New York and Chicago, Marek said a codeshare partner would be important. “We are in the final stage of negotiations and an announcement could be made maybe in the very near future, before the end of the year,” Marek said. With the addition of Chicago, Air Serbia is enlarging its scale in the U.S. and interest from other carriers to codeshare could rise even further, he added. Marek was not able to give more details, but Aviation Daily understands carrier such as United Airlines, American Airlines or JetBlue could be a logical codeshare partner. Air Serbia currently has 12 codeshare partners.

To balance out the network, Marek said Air Serbia does not need additional destinations in Europe, but more frequencies. It currently serves around 70 destinations, including charter routes. “We are currently planning around a dozen of new destinations for next year, also more frequencies in the region to guarantee connectivity to Chicago, New York and China,” Marek said. “And some of the new destinations, even exotic ones, might come already in the winter season.”

Air Serbia’s fleet comprises 10 A319s, one A320, one A330-200 and six ATR 72-200/500/600s.