Searching for Certainty: Austria’s capital Vienna contemplates a future without Air Berlin and Niki

So far, trends still look good. But uncertainty looms for Europe’s 20th busiest airport… again.

Austria’s capital Vienna, a major base for Air Berlin and its subsidiary Niki, now faces a future without its second largest customer—the Air Berlin group not long ago accounted for roughly a fifth of all traffic at the airport. Vienna, however, is no stranger to uncertainty. In the early 2000s, its largest airline tenant by far—Austria Airlines—faced its own questions of survival in a world of consolidating rivals. Fortunately for itself and for Vienna, the airline—with financial support from its government—found a willing buyer in Lufthansa just as the global financial crisis was unfolding in 2009. With several rounds of controversial cost cutting, which generated their share of labor unrest, Lufthansa was able to nurture Austrian back to profitability by 2013. But just barely.

Ten years ago, Vienna’s airport also worried about rising competition from neighboring Bratislava, just an hour or so away by road or rail. There, a young LCC called SkyEurope was rapidly adding flights, such that seat capacity at Bratislava’s airport more than doubled between 2004 and 2007, according to an Airline Weekly analysis of Diio Mi schedule data. At the time, SkyEurope was vying with Wizz Air for eastern European low-cost supremacy, and it wasn’t entirely certain which would emerge victorious. But the answer was clear by 2009, when SkyEurope collapsed and Bratislava lost its appeal as a Vienna alternative. This year, the Slovakian capital’s seat capacity is about a fifth less than it was 10 years ago.

Vienna, however, never managed to generate steady growth, even with an economy on surer footing than many of its European peers. In 2011, Austria’s government imposed a new airline ticket tax, encouraging Lufthansa to deepen Austrian’s downsizing efforts. In 2013, the airport’s traffic shrank 1% amid disruptions in the Middle East and North Africa, two regions for which Vienna serves as a top gateway.

The city is also a top gateway to countries of the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, which suffered economic catastrophe in 2014 as tensions with Russia turned violent. Russia itself was sideswiped economically by the collapse in oil markets that be…

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