Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

East European Airlines Find Western Partners in Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic, Carriers Making Strides in Service and Safety

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

East European Airlines Find Western Partners in Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic, Carriers Making Strides in Service and Safety

Article excerpt

UNTIL recently, flying an East European airline could be an unsettling experience. Flight attendants were invariably surly, the food forgettable, and the Russian-built Ilyushin and Tupolev aircraft uncomfortable, with some models demonstrating a nasty tendency to come apart at the seams in-flight.

Much of that has changed. Some airlines, particularly the national carriers in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, have made great strides to improve service, safety, and management. Poland's LOT, CSA Czechoslovak Airlines, and Hungary's Malev have formed partnerships with Western carriers and are making major investments to replace the fleets of aging Soviet aircraft with modern Western planes.

"A flight to or from Western Europe on LOT, Malev, or CSA can now be as good or better than that of a West European carrier," says Robert Toth, managing director of Budapest-based Tradesco Tours. "There's a lot of competition between the three carriers for who will emerge as Eastern Europe's leader."

Fleet replacement has been one major step. Russian-built Tupolev and Ilyushin models are maintenance-intensive and consume 40 percent to 50 percent more fuel than comparable Western designs. Their excessive noise and weight often result in higher landing fees at Western airports. Industry analysts say the carriers recently have encountered difficulties in trying to obtain spare parts from Russian manufacturers, resulting in lengthy groundings.

But by 1996, all three carriers say they will have replaced these aircraft with Boeing, Fokker, and Airbus designs. Malev announced in September that it would acquire four new Fokker 70-seat propeller turbo prop airplane jetliners and six Boeing 737s by next spring to complete its $400 million fleet modernization campaign. LOT and CSA are also phasing out their older models.

The airlines' partnerships with Western carriers are an effort to increase capital, improve services, and gain vital access to modern computerized reservation and fare-management systems. Alitalia of Italy purchased a 30 percent share of Malev in 1992, while 39 percent of CSA was sold to Air France. (The latter deal has since soured; Air France says it overpaid for its share of the troubled Czech airline.) LOT has formed a "strategic partnership" with Delta Airlines centered on route and passenger sharing, but thus far has avoided foreign equity involvement. "Forming links with other carriers is vital for us," says Sophie Gonda-Fischer, Malev communications manager. "The market is so competitive that even bigger carriers are finding they can't stay alone."

But change hasn't been easy. The three airlines suffer from years of financial mismanagement and the sudden collapse of their traditional markets in Eastern Europe. …

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