With Croatia recording another impressive tourist season, Digital Journal went to meet the sales and marketing director of a project that could be the most important addition to Croatian tourism transfers in years on November 7, 2013.
In the impressive historic surroundings of Diocletian's Palace in Split, Jan Albers talked with passion, humour and eloquence about the revolutionary hydroplane project from European Coastal Airlines, whose supporters go as far as the German chancellor, and which, once implemented from 2014, will offer a significantly enhanced and flexible travel experience for tourists and locals alike.
1. Hydro planes and island hopping in Croatia, it sounds perfect! How is the famous Croatian bureaucracy reacting to your plans?
Starting the first seaplane operation in south east Europe is not an easy task. The toughest part for us has been to figure out the persons and authorities who are actually in charge for the infrastructural development we had in mind.
Once we got to know the authorities in charge for one destination, we thought it might get easier for the next one - way off the mark! Every location has its own regulations and restrictions to which we needed to pay individual attention. Our biggest journey and challenge was to bring the people together who can move this project forward.
Along the way we met amazing personalities, great support from officials who wanted to find a solution as much as we wanted it ourselves. The best part is the knowledge that seaplane operations in Croatia are clearly regulated by Croatian and European law.
2. European Coastal Airlines has been trying to implement this project for ten years. Why are you so confident 2014 is the year?
This extra mile from the authorities, especially in Split county, Split city and Split port authority was the icebreaker. And we are really grateful for the visionary people we met here. From our side all necessary paperwork has been submitted and we are waiting for the location permits and concessions for Split - Matejuska, Split - Resnik, Hvar, Korcula, Vis and Lastovo. We have support from various ministries of Croatia and even the German Chancellor is involved in the project. Our project is a role model for European investors in Croatia. Nothing can stop us now.
3. How will people book, and how would a transfer from, for example, Split Airport to Hvar Town work? Take us through the experience of the arriving traveller.
The arriving traveller has either booked his flight with us already online via ec-air.eu (booking system will be launched on 01.03.2014) or will simply walk into our ticket office in Split airport - from there we are shuttling our passengers by bus 500m to our terminal at the sea. A ten-minute flight and you are in Hvar. Counting getting a ticket, luggage handling etc. the entire procedure from Split Airport to Hvar will hardly take you more than 20 - 30min. Basically by literally not spending a cent more than a combination of taxi and ferry costs from Split Airport to Hvar, you cut down your transfer time easily by 4 to 5 hours.
What we are talking here is simply a revolutionary upgrade to Croatian infrastructure. Besides this fact that we are giving the traveller this extra night on the island they always desired - now there is no need anymore to leave Hvar one night before their flight brings them home, due to early international flight departures from Split. This is the past. ECA is the future. By the way: By 2015 we will be connecting our booking system to Amadeus, saying this one will be able to book Shanghai - Hvar in one go.
Additionally we will offer a new era in customer relations. A couple of hours after your flight you will be able to download the entire flight experience from the cockpit online, not any flight from Split to Hvar, but the one which brought you and your beloved ones to the island. It will be a new passenger experience from the moment of visiting our website to being greeted by the handshake of our pilots until you reach your final destination. ECA stands for trustworthy, safe, revolutionary and reliable travelling. transparent pricing and a free shuttle.
4. Croatian island-hopping is a popular plan for visitors to Dalmatia, but ferry schedules do not make this easy, even in season. What can you offer travellers who want to see Split, Dubrovnik, Hvar, Korcula and Vis in a one-week visit, for example?
First of all - we will make island hopping as easy as it can get. One will find a short connection accessible quickly, not only from the main cities on the shore, but as well connections from island to island. Daily island hopping will actually be made possible year-around. A definite no-go in the current state with the ferry schedule.
And we are giving the travellers back what they value the most in their free time - the FREE TIME. No one can compete with our short flying time. Split - Korcula in 22min, Split Airport - Hvar in 10min. etc. Besides all this advantages we will make special offers, which basically means the more flights and destinations you book with us, the cheaper the fares become.
5. How affordable will the tickets be, and will there be any reduced prices for locals living on the islands?
When it comes to pricing for the flights ECA is going a pioneering way, as our utmost goal is to keep our fares affordable for everyone. We are doing this by offering a complete ECA experience. From the moment one is entering our terminal you will feel a welcoming, yet different spirit. Our guests may use the waiting time in our bistro, at an lounge atmosphere to eat the best Mediterranean cuisine, to nip a coffee speciality or to take a cocktail on our sundeck.
In no time your seaplane is ready, our friendly staff handles the luggage and the pilot will welcome you with a handshake - just a stone´s through away from the place where your thoughts drifted away. No waiting area in the world can compare to the experience which is awaiting you. I am saying this because each and every kuna we make on additional services will help to keep the ticket prices low. So every cup of coffee is basically supporting the flight service. This is highly important as the ticket prices must be kept affordable for ALL Croatian citizens, islanders etc. It can't be that the Croatian Airlines flight from Zagreb to Split does cost less then the seaplane flight from Split airport to Korcula. ECA does not get any subsidy for its seaplane service, and must therefore find additional ways to generate income.
Let me give you an example: In Canada seaplanes operate between Vancouver and Victoria. The flight time is approx. 25 minutes. The ticket price is about $ 185,-. This is not acceptable pricing for Croatia. The ticket price for Split to Korcula will initially be below 300,- kuna. Stating this if we want to build a sustainable service we need to support the ticket price with additional income. Only by going for a mixed calculation of flights and other services, such as Food & Drinks are we able to make our fares so competitive to the ferries and affordable for the people. The majority of the jobs we create are ground personnel, being not only in charge for passenger handling, such as checking in, but as well being the hosts of our restaurants and bistros. Otherwise it would hardly make sense to employ people full time, if there are only two to three slots each 90 minutes with aviation work needed.
And it actually does not end here. Each terminal on the sea is open for the public and can be booked for exclusive events, weddings or birthdays. Being always located in prime locations, such as Split-Matejuska, we will be able to deliver you an extraordinary experience in the heart of the city. And of course we will have super-promotional rates for tickets via our booking website available.
6. You intend to fly in the winter months as well, in contrast to most airlines servicing Split. Tell us more about that.
Our idea is to introduce seaplane operations to Croatia for Croatians. Our main focus is on the people living on the islands and for making it to them easier to access it. By doing so we are creating a network which can help in medical emergencies, rescue flights, postal services and, and, and. We are relying and looking even more forward to the winter months. Our entire project is developed to operate all year around, we are creating sustainable jobs on the islands, being part of responsible business programs and focusing on the environment, too. It is a new era in Croatian transportation. And we are delighted to support the islands and their inhabitants in their development.
Additionally we believe in being able to extend the season - the only drawback so far why the seasons end abruptly is simply a lack of accessibility - something we do believe we can change. Just today - and it is mid of November I saw people swimming in the sea, so anyone who wants to tell me that we have a high seasonality discrepancy because tourists simply are not coming due to the weather is a fool. We need to be more confident and proud of what Croatia can offer ALL YEAR AROUND. We at ECA are doing it.
Just look at destinations such as Mallorca - people are going there in Winter, because they can. I do not believe people who tell me there is no potential to extend the season. Croatia needs a new tourism lifestyle and to stop thinking that tourists come and go with the temperature of the water. I am going myself with my family every January for a week to Dubrovnik. Because it is as much a pearl in winter as it is in summer, and the same applies for Split, Zadar, Hvar, Korcula, Vis and Lastovo.
7. It seems that your core business will be transporting passengers on scheduled flights, but there are also other possibilities to use your planes perhaps for charter, private hire, as well as medical emergencies and sea rescues. Can you explain a little more about this?
Our core business is a new era of customer experience. Of course our seaplane services on scheduled flights is the core, nevertheless the charter business will be very attractive and surprisingly affordable. Due to the beautiful fact that we can land literally everywhere on the water means that our clients and passengers can explore the hidden sercrets in the Mediterranean, where no ferry would ever go.
As we have our own catering and chefs at the seaport, they can even be part of an amazing package, such as "BBQ on a isolated beach" or exploring the Croatian islands from an entirely new perspective with a sightseeing trip. We have already had official requests for rescue flights, medical services and patrol flights. Another request is waiting in the pipeline from a tour operator who wants to commit around 10.000 seats. The possibilities are almost endless and in our case: The sky is not the limit.