Malev successor Solyom aims for classic network carrier model

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Hungarian investors are preparing to launch operations of a new national carrier Solyom Hungarian Airways in September, with plans to serve short- and long-haul routes with 50 aircraft by 2017.

Chief executive Jozsef Vago - a former Hungarian air force fighter pilot who later became head of the country's civil aviation authority - has signed a contract for six narrowbodies with a UK lessor, although he has not revealed whether this comprises Airbus A320s or Boeing 737s.

Vago is one of three Hungarian businessmen who have been on working on a successor airline for Malev since the former flag carrier ceased operations in February 2012. Solyom - which means falcon - was registered as a company earlier this year.

The first aircraft is due to be delivered by 20 August and could initially be used for wet-lease operations, says Vago, but scheduled flights to major European hubs are due to begin by October.

Solyom will not be set up as a low-cost carrier, but based on a classic network airline model. Aircraft will be fitted out with conventional business and economy class sections, and even VIP services are to be offered.

"We will not fall into the low-cost trap" by trying to compete with the carriers such as Ryanair and Budapest-based Wizz Air, says Vago. Instead, the start-up airline is to become a "traditional legacy carrier" with a short- and long-haul network.

The latter routes are to be served through codeshare partnerships with international airlines. But Vago says that some long-haul routes will be operated with their own aircraft.

The fleet is envisaged to grow to around 50 aircraft by 2017 and could include both Airbus and Boeing types. Solyom aims to carry three million passengers in 2014, growing to eight million by 2017.

Vago argues that Malev's bankruptcy left a void in Hungary's air transport market that cannot be filled by the low-cost carriers. He argues that while around 40% of Malev's passengers was transfer traffic, the budget competitors can only offer point-to-point services to certain countries from Budapest. They cannot exploit all of Hungary's bilateral agreements - for example with Russia - because that would require the airline to be majority-owned by Hungarian investors. Some 17 former Malev destinations are thus not being served today, he says.

The first round of Solyom's destinations will comprise major Western European hubs, where the carrier can act as a feeder for larger international airlines. The network is then to be expanded to destinations in Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. It is eyeing long-haul services to North America from October 2014.

Vago is not concerned about Solyom taking over the same role in which Malev went bankrupt. Unlike the former state carrier, he says, Solyom will be a commercially-footed company without any legacy liabilities.

The airline currently employs around 20 staff members, but this is due to grow to at least 500 by October, with many operational employees being former Malev staff.

Line maintenance and continued airworthiness management will be conducted in-house. Vago says that the respective approvals are in place, and that the company is buying former Malev tools and ground support equipment in the defunct airline's on-going asset sale process. None of the former Malev aircraft will be employed, however, he adds.

For base maintenance, Solyom is issuing tenders to Budapest-based MRO provider Aeroplex of Central Europe and the local Lufthansa Technik facility.