Interview by Michael Nevradakis for Dialogos Radio
Tourist arrivals in Greece continue to increase despite the ongoing economic crisis in Greece, but for travelers from most of the United States, no direct options exist to fly to Greece. In this interview, Bill Kalivas, an aviation industry expert, discusses his online campaign to launch nonstop flights from Chicago and other U.S. cities to Greece, as well as general trends and prospects in aviation and tourism in Greece.
Michael Nevradakis: To get us started, share with us a few words about your efforts to get additional nonstop service added from U.S. cities to Greece, and tell us which city in the United States would be, in your view, the best candidate for a new nonstop service to Athens.
Bill Kalivas: I think the best city would really be Chicago. The combination of things going on, you have a large Greek community, it’s an airline hub, it provides different types of connections than some of the other cities, and also you have two airlines that are competing against each other, and one really should take it to have an advantage over the other locally. As far as efforts, we’ve been talking to employees, we have some videos up on YouTube, we’ve got pens that have been distributed to customers and have passed them around the Greek community, just as a reminder, as a promotion. We’re looking at other avenues too, but this is just a sample of what this is about.
MN: In your opinion, why have U.S. air carriers not added more nonstop routes to Greece?
People will switch from a direct flight to a connecting flight to save $120
BK: It’s because the tickets out of New York City are cheap, and everything is based on New York. New York is the biggest market, so it gets all the attention. The problem with New York is that that they’ve had [low-cost] charters before, and also you have a choice of all these different connection opportunities. For instance, in San Francisco, Moscow would not be a connection option. Out of Chicago, Cairo would not be a connection option. New York has got everything. Part of the problem is also that it’s a price-oriented thing. People will switch from a direct flight to a connecting flight to save $120. That dynamic doesn’t work when you go further west.
MN: This past summer, an upstart airline by the name of SkyGreece attempted to launch nonstop service from the United States and from Canada to both Athens and Thessaloniki. Yet, this initiative ended up in a huge fiasco. Share with our listeners a few words about SkyGreece and the reasons why, in your view, this venture failed.
New York is the biggest market, so it gets all the attention.
BK: They did indeed have some problems. There was one time where they had a problem with the oxygen masks and depressurization on the plane. Things like that happened. But, the way they handled it was poor, the communication was poor. The other thing is, the plan altogether was too ambitious for what they had. They only had one plane of their own and one leased plane from a Bulgarian carrier. Two planes to cover all that is just not realistic. They had flights from Toronto to Athens, Montreal to Athens, Toronto to Athens via Zagreb and then Thessaloniki and JFK. You can’t do that many trips with just two planes. It’s just not realistic.
MN: Interestingly, one of the unique aspects of SkyGreece’s service during its few months of operation was its introduction of nonstop service from North America direct to Thessaloniki. Do you believe that there is enough of a market to support nonstop flights to Thessaloniki in the future, from another carrier?
BK: I would say so, probably on a seasonal basis. I don’t think you can do Thessaloniki year-round. Athens you can do a couple of times during the week during the winter, I think there’s enough people to support that.
MN: In your opinion, why hasn’t Greece’s largest air carrier, Aegean Airlines, which is a member of the Star Alliance, launched its own long-range service to North America or perhaps to Australia or Africa?
BK: I think they’re satisfied with what they ‘re doing in Europe and the Middle East. It’s very much like the situation in the U.S., we have Alaska Airlines, and Alaska hasn’t bought any long-range planes or any wide-body planes. I think they have the same type of philosophy. I don’t think they have any intentions to fly long-range flights.
MN: Turning to the Greek domestic aviation market, Aegean Airlines has close to a monopoly along with its subsidiary, Olympic Air, with only a limited number of competitors on certain routes, such as Ryanair. Do you believe that this situation is beneficial for consumers in Greece or who are flying within Greece, and do you believe that there is room for growth in the domestic market in Greece?
BK: Yes. There are a few holes in the system. Like Kastoria, it maybe has one flight a week on Astra Airlines, I think it’s once or twice a week, and Ioannina, you’ve got a big gaping hole. You’ve got an early morning flight, and the flights from North America don’t connect to it, and then you don’t have a flight until the evening. I think during the peak season, I think Ioannina could use a flight or two. Hios could probably use some flights. Also, in the case of Sitia, they are building a new Waldorf Astoria hotel, a high-end hotel. Sitia doesn’t have that many flights now but they will need them later on.
MN: Which do you believe are the biggest aviation and tourism growth markets in Greece, and the markets that have the most potential as destinations in the future?
BK: Thessaloniki is a little bit underserved. Kalamata too, and the thing about Kalamata is, it’s got convention facilities and golfing, and many business conventions bypass Greece because of the lack of golf. They need to get the word out that it does exist. I think Kalamata will get some more business conventions. Also Volos. Volos is kind of a sticky area, it’s not really Athens and it’s not really Thessaloniki, it’s in between, and you have Larissa and you’ve got Meteora nearby and you’ve got Skiathos and Skopelos nearby, but no real mainline type of service into Volos. You’ve got seasonal charters and that’s about it, and no domestic flights into Volos by the way.
MN: In your online analysis, you often detect trends in the aviation industry and discuss how they could impact flight options to Greece. You’ve recently discussed how a new route from Istanbul to Durban could benefit travelers who are heading to Greece from South Africa, while conversely, you’ve spoken about how the recent cancellation of the Philadelphia to Tel Aviv route could have adverse impacts on flight availabilities to Greece in the coming year. What are some trends like these in the industry at present which might impact passengers who are thinking of traveling to Greece?
In the U.S., you’ve only got two flights but the amount of people traveling [to Greece] has increased
BK: The fact is that, in the U.S., you’ve only got two flights but the amount of people traveling [to Greece] has increased, using more connection options. As far as other impact areas, Eastern Europe is also a problem. SkyGreece was also trying to capitalize on the lack of service to Hungary, and the last two or three years, everything’s been kind of funneled on to the Paris and the London and the Frankfurt trips. Keep in mind that when Hellenic Imperial folded, Continental did not renew the service to Greece when they were merging with United, and Delta did not renew the Atlanta service, so we have less seats to Greece, we have no seats to Hungary, Delta had dropped a couple of years before the Romania service, and also, LOT had previously dropped Krakow, so you’ve got all these different parts of Eastern Europe and Greece fighting each other for the overwater seats.
MN: When the Eleftherios Venizelos international airport in Athens was constructed about 14 years ago, there was talk that the airport would have the future capacity of serving up to 50 million passengers per year. There has been some growth in the past couple of years, but it is still at around 17 million. What do you believe that Greece and the Greek tourism industry need to do to bring more passengers into Athens and into Greece in general?
BK: One thing is to do what France was doing. The French found out that February was their slowest month, and they would actually give tax breaks to the hotels so they can get the people in that are there for the cuisine and for the museums. I think Greece needs to do something like that, because you don’t necessarily have to have beach weather for doing those types of activities.
MN: We have spoken about the need for more routes to be added from North America into Greece, but what about routes from Australia, from Asia, and from Africa? Is there enough of a market, in your view, to sustain regular routes from these locations?
There are a few holes in the system. I think Ioannina could use a flight or two.
BK: I would say so. Regular, maybe not daily, but I think we can do regular routes on that. The one thing with Asia, Athens does have a big Filipino population that goes back and forth. Air China’s flight is very convoluted as far as the routing, it goes from Beijing to Munich to Athens, back to Munich, back to Beijing. It takes too much time from China. They need a flight somewhere there. India of course, Sri Lanka is becoming more politically stable, so people can come from Sri Lanka or go to Sri Lanka. As far as Africa, it’s really puzzling because right now there’s no really good connections to get to Africa except maybe via Turkey. There’s no nonstops to South Africa, and surprisingly there’s no service to Ethiopia. You would think that either Ethiopian or Aegean would run a flight to Addis Ababa, which is about four hours flight time. You don’t need a big plane and you could connect everybody through Ethiopia, but they’re not doing that.
MN: Where can our listeners find out more about your online efforts to add more nonstop service from the United States to Greece, and also to read your daily analysis of what’s happening in the airline industry.
BK: The page is http://www.facebook.com/ordathnonstop. I do the postings each day before I go to work, based on updates I receive from the aviation industry and other sources.
Note: In October 2015, shortly after this interview was recorded, United Airlines announced the relaunch of its seasonal nonstop service from Newark to Athens, with flights beginning May 2016. This raises the total number of scheduled nonstop airline routes from the United States to Greece to three, all originating from the Northeastern U.S.