Can you provide an overview of how Air Serbia has navigated the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and what strategies have been employed to ensure the airline’s resilience?
CEO Jiri Marek: Air Serbia‘s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by resilience and adaptability. We recognized early on that the aviation industry was facing unprecedented challenges. We adopted a multifaceted strategy to ensure the airline’s survival and continued service to our passengers. First and foremost, we prioritized the safety of our passengers and staff. We implemented stringent health and safety protocols, including enhanced cleaning procedures, mandatory mask-wearing, and social distancing measures. These steps were crucial in building and maintaining passenger confidence. Simultaneously, we focused on cost optimization. This involved a careful examination of our operations, fleet, and staffing levels to ensure financial stability during a period of reduced demand. Air Serbia dedicated all its resources to serving the country and the people of Serbia.
During the state of emergency, in collaboration with state authorities and organizations, dozens of special repatriation and evacuation flights were operated. These flights brought back Serbian citizens stranded at airports and in countries around the world, while foreign citizens were repatriated to their home countries. Over 10,000 people were carried during that period, and numerous cargo flights delivered hundreds of tons of medical equipment and supplies to our country. Another key element of our strategy was flexibility.
The ever-changing nature of travel restrictions and passenger preferences required us to adapt swiftly. We introduced more flexible booking and cancellation policies to accommodate our customers’ changing needs.
Overall, our ability to navigate these challenges stemmed from a combination of safety measures, cost-saving initiatives, adaptability, and a commitment to serving our passengers and community during difficult times.
What are your favorite destinations you believe the Americans should explore with Air Serbia?
CEO Jiri Marek: As CEO of Air Serbia, I have witnessed the diverse beauty and rich cultural experiences that Serbia and the surrounding region offer.
For Americans looking to explore with Air Serbia, I would recommend beginning their journey in Belgrade, our vibrant capital. Belgrade is a city of history and contrast, where ancient fortresses coexist with modern nightlife.
From Belgrade, I encourage travelers to venture further into Serbia and the Balkans. Serbian mountains and spas, as well as the northern province of Vojvodina, have an array of pleasant surprises for any passenger.
The Adriatic coast, with destinations like Montenegro and Croatia, offers breathtaking landscapes, crystal-clear waters, and historical treasures. Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor, often referred to as Europe’s southernmost fjord, is a true gem.
Beyond that, exploring the historical and architectural wonders of cities like Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Skopje in North Macedonia can be incredibly rewarding. These cities showcase the rich tapestry of cultures and histories that define the Balkans.
Ultimately, the appeal of Air Serbia lies in our ability to connect travelers to these captivating destinations, allowing them to experience the unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty that this region has to offer.
Many travelers prioritize comfort and luxury when flying business class. Could you elaborate on the premium amenities and services that Air Serbia offers its business class passengers?
CEO Jiri Marek: Air Serbia takes great pride in offering a long-haul business-class experience that combines comfort and convenience. Our business class passengers enjoy a range of premium amenities and services designed to make their journey as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.
First and foremost, our seats provide passengers with ample space to relax and sleep during long-haul flights. Part of our unique proposal is that our crew is preparing your beds, including the sheets, on request. We are also providing the set of pyjamas on request.
Additionally, each seat features a personal entertainment system with a selection of movies, TV shows, and music, all accessible through a touchscreen interface.
Business class passengers also benefit from expedited check-in and security procedures, allowing for a seamless travel experience. Access to our exclusive Premium Lounge at Belgrade Airport, as well as network of lounges on other airports we cooperate with, provides a tranquil space to unwind before a flight, with complimentary refreshments, Wi-Fi, and business facilities.
When it comes to dining, our business class passengers are treated to a culinary journey that reflects the flavors of Serbia and the Balkans, as well as selected international cuisine.
Our menus are carefully curated to showcase the region’s gastronomic diversity. Passengers can enjoy a selection of premium wines and beverages to complement their meal. To enhance the overall experience, our dedicated cabin crew provides personalized service, ensuring that every need is met throughout the flight.
Whether it’s assistance with meal preferences, additional amenities, or any other request, our team is committed to making the journey memorable for our business class passengers. In summary, our business class amenities encompass comfortable seating, in-flight entertainment, exclusive lounge access, exquisite dining options, and personalized service, all combining to create a premium travel experience.
Could you tell us more about the culinary experience that business class passengers can expect when flying with the airline? What is your favorite experience you would recommend to a first time business traveler with Air Serbia?
CEO Jiri Marek: Air Serbia takes great pride in offering a distinctive culinary experience to our business class passengers, allowing them to savor the flavors of Serbia and the Balkans while enjoying the comforts of air travel.
Our business class menus are thoughtfully curated to showcase the diverse and delicious cuisine of the region. This combination of flavors provides a true taste of Serbia and is a must-try for anyone exploring our culture through cuisine. However, our culinary offerings extend beyond Serbian classics.
Passengers can also choose from a range of international dishes, prepared by our talented chefs to the highest standards. We take great care in selecting the finest ingredients to ensure the quality and freshness of our meals. Complementing our culinary offerings, we offer an extensive selection of premium wines and beverages to enhance the dining experience.
Whether it’s a crisp white wine or a full-bodied red, our wine list is curated to pair perfectly with the diverse flavors of our menu. To cater to the preferences of our passengers, we also provide flexibility in meal options, accommodating dietary restrictions and special requests. Our dedicated cabin crew is trained to provide attentive service, ensuring that each passenger’s dining experience is both enjoyable and memorable.
Air Serbia is known for its commitment to the local community. How does the airline support local businesses and showcase Serbian culture and hospitality in the business class experience?
CEO Jiri Marek: At Air Serbia, our commitment to the local community and the promotion of Serbian culture and hospitality are core principles that guide our operations, particularly in the business class experience. We believe that the airline experience should extend beyond the aircraft cabin and encompass the entire journey, including the moments spent at the airport and in our lounge.
We prioritize partnerships with local businesses. This not only supports the Serbian economy but also allows us to offer unique, locally sourced products to our passengers. From the selection of wines and spirits, the best that Serbia has to offer.
Ultimately, our goal is to be ambassadors of Serbian hospitality, showcasing the warmth and friendliness for which our country is known.
We want passengers to leave our flights with not only a sense of comfort but also a newfound appreciation for the culture and heritage of Serbia.
What key initiatives has Air Serbia undertaken to ensure passenger safety and confidence in air travel during the pandemic and beyond?
CEO Jiri Marek: Ensuring the safety and well-being of our passengers has always been a top priority for Air Serbia, and this commitment has been further amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Throughout the pandemic, we implemented a comprehensive set of safety measures to protect both passengers and our dedicated staff. These measures included enhanced cleaning and disinfection protocols for aircraft. Another critical aspect of our safety initiatives is air quality.
Our Airbus fleet is equipped with air filtration systems that circulate fresh air every few minutes, ensuring a high standard of cabin air quality. We have also worked closely with health authorities and international organizations to stay updated on the latest guidelines and best practices related to COVID-19. This collaboration has enabled us to adapt our safety protocols in real-time as the situation evolved.
Looking beyond the pandemic, we remain committed to maintaining the highest safety standards in the industry. This includes ongoing training for our staff and investing in the latest safety technology to mitigate potential risks and ensure the peace of mind of our passengers. Safety is not just a protocol for us; it’s a fundamental aspect of our operations, and we spare no effort in upholding it.
Sustainability and environmental concerns are increasingly important in the aviation industry. What steps is Air Serbia taking to reduce its carbon footprint and promote sustainable aviation practices?
CEO Jiri Marek: Air Serbia recognizes the increasing importance of sustainability and environmental concerns in the aviation industry. As part of our commitment to a greener future, we are taking concrete steps to reduce our carbon footprint and promote sustainable aviation practices.
One of the most significant steps we’ve taken is the continuous modernization of our fleet. These aircraft not only reduce our environmental impact but also provide a more comfortable and efficient travel experience for passengers.
Beyond fleet modernization, we are actively working on optimizing our flight routes to minimize fuel consumption. This includes using advanced navigation and air traffic management systems to find the most fuel-efficient paths, ultimately reducing emissions. Waste reduction is another area of focus. We are working to minimize single-use plastics on our flights and in our operations, with a goal of reducing plastic waste. We are also evaluating ways to improve recycling and waste management practices.
Lastly, we are actively engaging with industry organizations and initiatives that promote sustainability in aviation. This includes participating in carbon offset programs and supporting research into innovative technologies that can further reduce the environmental impact of air travel. Our commitment to sustainability is not only about reducing our carbon footprint but also about being responsible stewards of the environment and contributing to a more sustainable future for aviation.
Air Serbia has a long history of international travel. Could you share some insights into the major achievements of the company?
CEO Jiri Marek: Air Serbia has a rich history of international travel, and over the years, we have achieved several significant milestones. After a hiatus of a quarter of a century, in June 2016, the service between Belgrade and New York was re-established. Air Serbia thus became the only airline in the broader Balkan region with a direct service to the United States. This historic milestone demonstrated the strength of the business strategy and the realization of the national airline’s vision, marking a new chapter in its operations.
On 9 December, 2022, Air Serbia commenced flights to Tianjin in the People’s Republic of China. This marked the reestablishment of a scheduled direct service to the Asian country after a 22-year hiatus. The commercial service to China was the pinnacle of Air Serbia’s success in 2022.
On 17 May 2023, after more than 30 years of hiatus, the service between Belgrade and Chicago was re-established from Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport. It was an important day for the Serbian national airline, Serbia, Belgrade, and the entire Western Balkans region.
The third long-haul route of Air Serbia and the second in North America proved to be significant and beneficial to passengers from the very beginning, contributing to improved business, tourism, and all other connections between Serbia and the United States.
Speaking in general, our network expansion has been remarkable. We have consistently added new destinations to our route map, connecting Serbia to key cities across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. This expansion has not only increased our reach but has also enhanced connectivity for travelers.
Another major achievement worth noting is our contribution to the economic development of Serbia and the broader region. As a national carrier, we play a vital role in facilitating trade and tourism, driving economic growth, and fostering international partnerships. We take pride in being a key driver of connectivity in the Balkans.
The competitive landscape in the airline industry is ever-evolving. How does Air Serbia plan to maintain its position as a global player and differentiate itself from other carriers?
CEO Jiri Marek: In the ever-evolving competitive landscape of the airline industry, Air Serbia is dedicated to maintaining its position as a global player by focusing on several key strategies that set us apart from other carriers. First and foremost, we prioritize service excellence. We invest in the training and development of our staff to ensure they deliver top-notch service, and we constantly seek feedback from our passengers to identify areas for improvement.
Additionally, we differentiate ourselves through our expansive network of destinations. By continuously expanding our route map and exploring strategic partnerships and codeshare agreements, we offer passengers a wide range of options for connecting to destinations worldwide. This connectivity is a significant advantage for travelers who value seamless journeys.
Our Serbian heritage is another key differentiator. We embrace and celebrate our culture and traditions, infusing them into the passenger experience. We aim to provide an authentic taste of Serbia to all our passengers, ensuring a unique and memorable journey.
Can you provide an update on any upcoming route expansions or partnerships that Air Serbia has planned to further connect travelers to destinations worldwide?
CEO Jiri Marek: We are constantly expanding our network – only several days ago we added new route in Portugal, popular destination of Porto. That is our 23rd new destination introduced in 2023 only.
Air Serbia is continuously working to enhance our route network and forge strategic partnerships that benefit our passengers and expand our global reach. In terms of route expansions, we have several exciting plans in the pipeline.
While I cannot disclose specific details at this time, I can assure you that we are actively exploring opportunities to connect travelers to even more destinations across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.
These expansions will not only increase connectivity but also offer passengers a broader range of options for their travel needs. Furthermore, partnerships are a key focus for us. By collaborating with other airlines through codeshare agreements and alliances, we can provide seamless connections to destinations beyond our network. These partnerships enhance the travel experience for our passengers, enabling them to reach a wider range of cities and regions with ease. Additionally, we are continually evaluating opportunities for closer cooperation with airports, tourism boards, and other stakeholders to promote travel and tourism in Serbia and the surrounding region. These partnerships aim to create a more robust and attractive travel ecosystem for both domestic and international travelers. While I cannot provide specific details on upcoming expansions and partnerships at this moment, I can assure you that Air Serbia remains committed to growth and innovation, with the ultimate goal of enhancing the travel experience for our passengers and connecting them to exciting new destinations around the world.
Air Serbia has a rich history and a strong brand identity. How does the airline plan to leverage its heritage while staying relevant in an ever-changing market?
CEO Jiri Marek: Air Serbia is the national airline of the Republic of Serbia, the successor of the first national airline, Aeroput, established in Belgrade in 1927 and among ten world’s oldest airlines that still operate. It has been operating under the current name since October 2013.
Air Serbia’s rich history and strong brand identity are assets that we hold dear and leverage strategically to stay relevant in an ever-changing market. One of the ways we harness our heritage is through our commitment to showcasing Serbian culture and hospitality. We believe that our culture is a unique selling point, and we incorporate it into various aspects of the passenger experience.
From the moment passengers step on board, they are immersed in Serbian traditions, whether through the cuisine, music, or the warmth of our cabin crew. Another aspect of our heritage that we value is our position as a national carrier. This heritage carries a sense of responsibility to our home country and the broader region. We actively engage in initiatives that support economic development, tourism, and connectivity in Serbia and the Balkans. This not only aligns with our heritage but also strengthens our position as a vital contributor to the local community.
While we embrace our heritage, we also recognize the need to adapt to changing market dynamics and passenger preferences. We invest in modernizing our fleet, upgrading our technology, and continuously improving our services to meet the evolving needs of travelers. This blend of tradition and innovation allows us to strike a balance between honoring our heritage and staying relevant in a competitive industry. In essence, our heritage is not a static element of our identity but a dynamic force that informs our values and guides us in providing a unique and contemporary travel experience.
In the realm of safety and security, what measures is Air Serbia taking to ensure the well-being of passengers and staff, especially in light of emerging threats and challenges?
CEO Jiri Marek: Safety and security are paramount concerns for Air Serbia, and we take a comprehensive approach to ensure the well-being of our passengers and staff, especially in light of emerging threats and challenges. It might be interesting that Air Serbia was recently among the first airlines to sign the IATA Safety Leadership Charter.
Our safety measures begin with rigorous training for our cabin and flight crews. They are well-prepared to handle a wide range of situations and emergencies. This training covers everything from in-flight medical emergencies to security protocols. We also work closely with airport authorities and law enforcement agencies to maintain a high level of security at all our destinations. This includes regular security audits, screenings, and collaboration with international security organizations.
We continually update our technology and collaborate with experts in the field to stay ahead of potential threats. Additionally, we actively monitor global security developments and adapt our procedures accordingly. This includes adjustments to our route planning and operations in response to geopolitical or safety concerns.
Our commitment to safety and security extends to the in-flight experience. Our aircraft are equipped with advanced safety features, and our cabin crew is trained to handle various scenarios to ensure passenger safety. Ultimately, our passengers can have confidence that we prioritize their well-being above all else.
Can you share any insights into Air Serbia’s commitment to corporate social responsibility and its contributions to the communities it serves?
CEO Jiri Marek: As I already mentioned, the importance of having a national carrier was clearly visible during the pandemic when Air Serbia carried over 10,000 people and organized numerous cargo flights with hundreds of tons of medical equipment and supplies.
In general, corporate social responsibility is a core principle at Air Serbia, and we are dedicated to making meaningful contributions to the communities we serve. For the last three years, Air Serbia participates in the program of the Government of Serbia entitled “My First Salary” created to encourage the employment of young people without prior work experience.
One of our primary areas of focus is education. We believe in investing in the future, and we closely cooperate with a number of Serbian educational entities. This includes partnerships with schools and internships for promising students. In cooperation with the Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, based on the protocol on cooperation signed between the Ministry and the University of Belgrade, Air Serbia participates in the program for a three-month internship in our company.
We are proud to be given the opportunity to welcome talented students in their final year of undergraduate and master studies, arriving from the Faculties of Economics, Law, Organizational Sciences and Transport and Traffic Engineering. Air Serbia strongly believes in providing practical knowledge, skills, and invaluable work experience to ambitious young professionals during their studies, who will get a unique opportunity to grow in a dynamic industry. Air Serbia received more students than any other company participating in this program. Our workforce reflects the diverse communities we serve, and we actively promote an inclusive workplace culture.
We strongly advocate gender equality by the fact that women comprise 48 per cent of the total number of employees, while the management positions have an equal number of women and men, 50 per cent each.
Lastly, we recognize the importance of culture and the arts in our society. We support cultural events, local artists, and showcase Serbian culture on our flights. This not only enriches the cultural landscape but also promotes a deeper understanding of our heritage.
Corporate social responsibility is not just a box to check for Air Serbia; it’s a fundamental part of our identity. We strive to be a responsible corporate citizen, making a positive impact on the communities we touch, and fostering a better future for all.
What is the biggest lesson in leadership you have learned on this job?
CEO Jiri Marek: Throughout my tenure as CEO of Air Serbia, I have had the privilege of learning many valuable lessons in leadership. However, if I were to pinpoint the most significant lesson, it would be the importance of agility.
The aviation industry is dynamic and extremely volatile, subject to rapid changes in technology, regulations, and market conditions. This was especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when the industry faced unprecedented challenges. In such times, being able to pivot and make tough decisions quickly is essential for the success and survival of an airline.
Effective leadership in the face of uncertainty requires the ability to assess situations objectively, gather data and insights, and make informed decisions swiftly. It means staying attuned to the needs and concerns of both passengers and employees, while also keeping a long-term strategic vision in mind.
Furthermore, adaptability extends beyond crisis management. It’s about continuously evolving and improving our operations, services, and strategies to meet the ever-changing expectations of our passengers and the demands of the market.
Adaptability is a critical leadership trait that I’ve learned to value immensely. It not only helps us navigate challenges but also positions us to seize opportunities and drive positive change in the aviation industry.