“The Insider” column is a behind-the-curtain, day-in-the-life series about the people who make traveling easier for the rest of us. These industry stalwarts make it possible for us to create our own memories.
AirSerbia, formerly Yugoslav Airways founded in 1947, was rebranded in 2013 as a result of their partnership with Etihad Airways. From the “Living legends of Serbia” series of the airline’s updated fleet- which names Airbuses after Serbian sportsmen such as Novak Dokovic to adding the first long-haul flight since 1992 from the airline’s hub in Belgrade to New York, AirSerbia is going to great lengths to modernize and improve their services. The Serbian experience begins as early as the lounge and lasts throughout the flight. Attendants offer Serbian wines, rakias, meals and movies to showcase what the country has to offer if travelers are willing to take the time to stop for a visit. AirSerbia additionally enacted a Stopover Paid by Carrier program in which the company offers guests flying from specified destinations to New York an eight to twenty-four hour layover in Belgrade with accommodation and the opportunity to see the city.
Travel sat down AirSerbia CEO Dane Kondic to discuss the company and its future. Get the worldview of an airline executive in an a rising destination within the evolving region of the Western Balkans.
Why did you choose the airline business and what do you enjoy most about it?
Dane Kondic Growing up in Australia, I always had a fascination with flying. Being as Australia is so far-off from anywhere else, air travel and traveling abroad always had a sense of adventure and intrigue, even when it meant catching a twenty-plus hour flight. That interest in the aviation industry developed further when I started working in the travel trade and eventually joined Qantas, one of the oldest airlines in the world—along with Air Serbia and its predecessors of course—which will next year celebrate ninety years of flying.
Tell us about your decision to move back to Serbia and that transition?
DK I need to clarify one thing: I was actually born in Australia to Serbian parents, hence my home is Australia, but my roots are Serbian. So I didn’t really “move” back to Serbia … rather, I came back to my ancestral home. In 2013, I was approached by Etihad to assist them with the due diligence on our predecessor at the time, Jat Airways, which would eventually be transformed into Air Serbia. It was an exciting chance to redefine the aviation landscape in the region and make a really positive impact in Serbia, and with my roots and experience I decided to jump onboard. Over the last three years we have achieved phenomenal growth, culminating in the launch of long-haul operations this June.
What are your goals for Air Serbia?
DK Our primary goal at Air Serbia is to be the leading airline in Southeast Europe, and that means offering best-in-class products and services, with modern aircraft and a network that takes people where they want to go. As the national airline we care about preserving our national heritage, but at the same time we want to showcase the modern Serbia many travelers are simply unaware of. The launch of flights to New York was significant in this regard as not only has it reconnected Serbia and the US with a Serbian-operated flight after a break of twenty-four years, but it has provided a new air link for American travelers and businesses to discover what we have to offer.
What sets Air Serbia apart from regional competitors?
DK What sets Air Serbia apart is our focus on service. For example, look at our flights to JFK. As a boutique airline with just one long-haul route across the Atlantic, we have made it a point to pay attention to all the finer details, in order to enhance the travel experience. We have a Business Class cabin with eighteen extremely comfortable seats that lie flat when you want to sleep, a la carte “dine-on-demand” meals, inflight internet connectivity and even specially-trained cabin crew—Sky Au Pairs—who help families with kids. As the only airline to fly year-round to North America from Southeast Europe, we already stand out from other airlines, but it’s our service proposition that really clinches the deal.
What role do you hope Serbia will have in the business of connecting the world?
DK They say Serbia sits at the crossroads of Europe, and it really is true. In Belgrade we are very well-placed geographically to connect people across Europe, and especially so for American travelers. We have a strong network, flying to forty-four destinations, so people can fly from New York to Belgrade, spend a week or two in Serbia, and travel on to Montenegro or Croatia for example. At the same time as building up our Belgrade hub, we are also quickly gaining a reputation for our service, both long and short-haul. Our Business Class service is particularly recognized for being arguably the best short haul product in Europe – a ninety minute flight between Belgrade and Berlin offers a level of service comparable to many longer flights on other airlines. With the rise of MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) travel to Serbia, this is another segment we are keen to focus on.
What is your vision for Serbia as a destination in the future?
DK Serbia is still a little bit ‘off the beaten path’ but an increasing number of travelers are slowly discovering that it has plenty to offer – from our vibrant capital of Belgrade and its round-the-clock nightlife, to the natural beauty of Fruška Gora national park and the ski resorts of Kopaonik. In addition, we have really great cuisine and wines that are easily up there with the best wine from New Zealand, South Africa or California. At Air Serbia we are really focused on promoting these varied aspects of Serbia’s travel proposition, which is why we have a well-stocked inflight cellar for example, with award-winning local wines from the Radovanovic winery in addition to our popular local brandy called rakia. Serbia has a lot of potential in tourism that we want to bring out.
How do you think adventure travel (i.e. hiking, biking, or skiing) could impact Serbia?
DK As a mountainous landlocked country, adventure travel is a niche that holds much potential for Serbia. At Air Serbia we see many young travelers and others with a sense of wanting to explore something new, flying to Serbia which they know offers exceptional value and has that added allure of being relatively undiscovered. Serbia offers a range of activities from luxury cruises on the Danube to cave tours and hikes up the famous Derdap gorge. With more and more tour operators on the market we are sure adventure travel will become increasingly important to the tourism sector.
Molly Harris is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.