Sólyom Hungarian Airways

Sólyom Airways, a start-up that was initially treated as a joke, is actually recruiting employees, including pilots. Considering that it currently has but one plane, it is looking to hire only 35 employees. But it took out a full-page ad to recruit them.

Let’s go back to the beginning. It was sometime in early June that news spread that unknown investors are launching a new Hungarian airline. When it turned out that the airline’s CEO in a display of nationalistic zeal was thinking of calling the new company Sólyom Airways, the jokes on Facebook began to pour in by the hundreds if not thousands. Most of the jokes were about the name of the company. After all, no foreigner will be able to pronounce the name, and the meaning of “sólyom” (falcon)  will also be wasted on them. Here is a funny video taken by a reporter for Index. The reporter holds up a large piece of paper and asks tourists at the Budapest Airport to pronounce the word “Sólyom.” Most of them settled for something that in Hungarian orthography could be written as Szólium or Szóliom.

Another wave of jokes began to circulate when the Hungarian public learned that the first leased plane of Sólyom Airlines will be called “Álmos.” You may recall that Álmos was Chieftain Árpád’s father who was allegedly sacrificed by his own men just when the Hungarian tribes entered the Carpathian Basin. Not a good omen, if you ask me. I would also be worried about the current meaning of the word: “sleepy.” The planes will look like this:

Solyom plane2

Back in early July when the mysterious Mrs. Németh, minister of national development, was asked what the government thinks about this new company, she announced that the whole enterprise “lacks seriousness.” I think that the majority of Hungarians would have agreed with her.  Most people would have called it a pipe dream. Starting a new airline is an expensive and very risky undertaking. The public knew nothing about the founder and had no idea whether there were serious investors behind him or not. Why would a serious investor believe that another Hungarian airline could conquer all the difficulties that grounded Malév?

Sólyom will be unmistakably Hungarian, not just in name but also as far as cuisine and hospitality are concerned. Foreign travelers will be welcomed in Hungarian: “Isten hozott!” which Hungarian-English dictionaries translate only as “welcome!” But perhaps the Austrian-Bavarian “Grüß Got!” would give a better sense of “Isten hozott!” Apparently upon landing in Hungary the pilot will announce “honfoglalás,” the Hungarian word for the Hungarian tribes’ occupation of today’s Hungary.

All this sounds a little crazy, but the mysterious CEO, József Vágó, gave a press conference on July 24 and announced that the airline will become a reality very soon. Álmos, the first of the six planes he intends to lease, will take off on September 1. Where is it going? Well, that’s not so clear. He refused to be specific but indicated that the airline will first concentrate on western Europe. His airline will offer full-fledged premier flights at low prices, so he will be able to compete with low-cost carriers like Wizz Air, another Hungarian airline serving 30 some countries in Europe and the Middle East.

József Vágó is a supremely self-confident man, and I hope for his own and his investors’ sake that his bravado is not without foundation.  An interview with him on Egyenes Beszéd (ATV) will give you a taste of his personality. He calls himself a “dragon,” which will also be depicted on the tail of the plane. If we can believe Vágó, he is the only person in the whole world who has developed a model that guarantees rapid profits and expansion.

Initially the airline will  lease only six twenty-year-old Boeing 737-500s which, he admitted, are less fuel efficient than later models. But Vágó emphasized that they are in excellent shape because they flew very little. A European airline used them as VIP planes; they flew between Europe and the United States for a few years. These VIP planes were refitted to imitate private jets in their comforts. He also added that there is a possibility of purchasing outright twenty-two planes in addition to the 737-500s; these will be newer models.

But that’s not the end of Vágó’s business plans. He envisages at least 50 planes flying practically everywhere, including the Far East and the United States. Just yesterday he announced that the Chinese promised 1 million passengers to Sólyom once the company reaches the point of full capacity and has regular flights to China. If I recall, Malév didn’t manage to do well with its Chinese routes but perhaps Vágó will have better luck.

When will Sólyom be profitable? In four months, answered Vágó without any hesitation. Well, I’m an optimistic person. Some of my friends call me Pollyanna after the ever optimistic heroine of a popular American book for girls written in 1913, but even I found it difficult to embrace this guy’s unbounded belief in himself and in the bright future just ahead for him and his company.

It seems that the mysterious backer of József Vágó is Emirates Airlines, which is based in Dubai. It is the largest airline in the Middle East, operating over 3,000 flights per week and serving more than 130 cities in 77 countries across six continents. So, perhaps Vágó has reason to be confident. What I find funny is that the Orbán government has been courting the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries for direct investment in Hungary with no tangible results, and here is this Vágó who was an unknown until a month ago who seemed to be able to make a deal with Emirates Airlines. When Olga Kálmán of Egyenes Beszéd asked him whether he discussed his business plans with the government, Vágó made it clear that he wouldn’t have trusted the government with his plans and that he finds governments not fit to conduct business where decisions must be made fast. Governments are far too bureaucratic to be effective partners of private enterprise.

Now we can wait for the airline’s profitability and eventually the one million Chinese tourists.

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49 comments

  1. One of the seven dwarfs was also Sleepy … Hmmm. Coincidence? I don’t think so! What if the seven chiefs were Arpad, Sleepy, Ond, Kond, Tas, Sneezy and Grumpy? That would really throw off the Turanian theory …

    Sleepy is good name for a red eye flight.

  2. Vago has a very interesting background. He was in charge of allowing aircrafts into Hungarian airspace when the Israeli “spy planes” entered in 2010. He was duly fired after the incident. He is also said to have worked for “nemzetbiztonsagi szolgalat” (roughly the Hungarian homeland security) earlier.

    http://blogs.wsj.com/emergingeurope/2010/03/26/heads-may-roll-after-israeli-air-force-jets-fly-over-hungary/

    In Hungarian atlatszo.hu has a good overview of him and Solyom.

    http://atlatszo.blog.hu/2013/07/10/solymok_szarnyan

  3. Malev was so bad for a number of years before it went under that I just shuddered to fly with them. That said, many western destinations are now under served and so Solyom will certainly fill a gap.

    The big issue will be getting landing slots. New airlines are suppose to have access to slots under the new rules governing slot allocations. That said, my guess is that slots for times of high traffic will be quite dear. Solyom is going to have to compete for these expensive slots if they want to keep their aircraft in the air.

    The second problem is that wIthout a partner they are going to have a very difficult time competing against Star Alliance. With Star Alliance, one hop to anyone of ZUR, MUC, FRA, or DUS will allow you to get just about anywhere you want to get to. Hit AMS and you’re good for anything that Star Alliance doesn’t cover. No doubt this airline needs to enter into an alliance. Joining up with the Emirates program, the most logical one given the backing, it’s going to create the connections it needs to operate in Europe.

  4. An :

    In Hungarian atlatszo.hu has a good overview of him and Solyom.

    http://atlatszo.blog.hu/2013/07/10/solymok_szarnyan

    I missed the Atlatszo article. It is so typical of the Bajnai government that their first thought was to fire someone instead of saying that whole Israeli spy case is a typical Fidesz game without any foundation. They should have stood straight. They did the same thing with the Sukoró case. They decided to stop the whole deal and thus giving the impression that there was something not quite right. A big mistake. I hope Bajnai is not planning to pay the softy again. It would be a non-starter.

    As far as Vágó is concerned, he certainly doesn’t sound like a great friend of Gyurcsány and the left. Instead, he sounds like a nationalistic nut. Well, we will see.

  5. Eva, yes, it is bizarre… and its sudden appearance out of the blue, and with no info who is providing the capital for the enterprise, also makes it look somewhat fishy. When the first news appeared many economic commentators did not take the whole idea seriously at all. Now it does seems that the new airline may indeed start… the latest analysis I read gave them one year before they accumulate so much loss that the investors back out. I guess we’ll see.

  6. @LwiiH. Most experts doubt that there is a real gap in flight connections from and to Budapest, including premium flights.

    I flew a couple of times with Malev from Zurich to Budapest and back. My experience was quite positive, especially as I had a lot of legroom and could sit practically anywhere in an almost empty plane…

    HGV quotes Capitol Consulting Group who predict a big crash and debts of 250 million euros come 2017 – as their best-case scenario.

    Others speculate that via Sólyom, the supposed financer (Emirates) will try to get a hold on much-treasured European landing rights.

    Even the generally uncritical “Budapester Zeitung” expressed some doubts about the soundness of the project.

    Information about the first “falcon” flight varies between August 20 and September 1.

    However, by July 27, Sólyom Hungarian Airlines had no licences to fly anywhere, neither national nor international.

    A baffling story!

  7. Though it’s hard to tell, the figure on the tail looks like it’s supposed to be a falcon, not a dragon.

  8. I’m pretty sure that Mr. Vágó is a character…but then again, so are many high-profile and successful entrepreneurs (Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and Virgin’s Richard Branson come to mind). I agree that the nationalist imagery is a bit much, but mainly in a silly sort of way. (Álmos vezér, seriously??).

    But the more I read about this venture, the more I think that there may be something to what seems like madness. I would recommend reading a series of three interviews with Vágó published by iho.hu, and especially the third installment. He speaks about how airlines are essentially unwitting clients of something called the Global Distribution System (GDS) for reservations and ticket sales, where they pay 8 euros per transaction. Vágó proposes that his airline will build its own GDS, at a cost of 30 cents per transaction and will have a press conference about this next week, in the presence of his techie, who is not an EU citizen (probably comes from Asia/M.E.) and will discuss this aspect of the project.

    Péter Lévai, who was heavily involved in efforts to resurrect Malév and played a role in the Hungarian World Airways Inc project believes that Vágó somehow managed to get his hands on studies produced over the course of the past 18 months by various firms and investors who looked at the possibility of a new airline in Hungary and that he is now benefiting from this collective ‘wisdom.’

    As for Emirates, I am not sure that they are actually involved in this effort. I thought that they confirmed to hvg.hu that they were not involved in this…

  9. Sorry that I am requoting myself but my opinion still stands from my July 6th post:
    “Now the interesting thing is that the head of this venture is Jozsef Vago, the man who the Jobbik and Fidesz tried to crucify as Russian/Israeli spy back in 2010 when “Israeli spy planes flew uninvited and unannounced over Budapest the same day a Syrian man was shot to death in his car”. It was known that supposedly Vago had some ties to Gyurcsany. He was fired from his position immediately. He was fired, somehow crucified and now, he is free to start up the National airlines with support of Orban? I find it very strange. I wonder how much money the Hungarian government put towards this, and who are really behind this Hungarian National venture? How long it will be before Vago will be tried for treason or for spying if Orban stays in office in 2014? Any info would be welcomed.”

  10. After Malev, a Fidesz government ripoff of 600,000 ticket holders (even if you paid with a credit card and were given a shot at getting your money back…you had to pay a 20 euro ‘processing’ charge!), who in their right mind would buy an air-ticket from a Hungarian seller?

    I wouldn’t.

  11. Eva S. Balogh :

    An :
    No, I read it in an interview with him somewhere. I bet he is a character.

    Take a look at the interview. It is certainly worth 10 or so minutes.

    I’ve watched it. He is very self-assured… I really don’t like the nationalistic tone the new airline has.. but it is not a government-backed, Fidesz-linked shady business deal, at least that’s what I gathered from the interview. If against all odds he can pull this off and start a new airline, well, good luck to him. .

  12. What a disappointment the aeroplane’s livery is. Where, I ask you, are the runes? Rovásírás, people — it’s our future!

  13. “Just yesterday he announced that the Chinese promised 1 million passengers to Sólyom once the company reaches the point of full capacity and has regular flights to China. ”

    Whatever that means. Who are these mysterious “the Chinese” who can promise 1 million passengers? Flying from where to where? What is this promise based on?

    This reminds me the old joke about Ceausescu visiting Mao. Mao keeps falling asleep during the discussions and each time he wakes up, he asks who these people are, and each time he is told that these are the Romanian comrades. At one point he wakes up and says: yes, I remember, these are the Romanian comrades, how many are they? When he is told; 20 millions, he asks: did you put them up in a good hotel?

  14. Has anyone noticed that Solyom doesn’t even have a website up yet? And they are supposed to be flying in less than a month?!

  15. I guess f in Hungary (perhaps in other countries as well) anything has anything to do with the Middle East in any, even the remotest, way, whether it’s halal food or international trade, then the Hungarian national security people are involved.

    Does anybody still remember the overweight, shabby ‘dog trainers’, ie. completely clueless and delusional Hungarian spies kidnapped in Syria? I think Solyom is a similar brainchild.

    The whole idea of Solyom Airlines is just preposterous. There are countless books dedicated to the strange and actually worsening economics of the aviation industry. There are no “agreements” with the “Chinese” to supply 1 million or any number of passangers. Only someone with no clue whatsoever about the aviation or any real (not state supported, crony) business can come up with this idea. So it is probably not a business idea in the first place.

  16. Mutt :
    One of the seven dwarfs was also Sleepy … Hmmm. Coincidence? I don’t think so! What if the seven chiefs were Arpad, Sleepy, Ond, Kond, Tas, Sneezy and Grumpy? That would really throw off the Turanian theory …
    Sleepy is good name for a red eye flight.

    That dwarf is actually called ‘Szundi’ in Hungarian, not ‘Álmos’. But it does not really matter. An awkward name, indeed…

  17. Minusio :
    @LwiiH. Most experts doubt that there is a real gap in flight connections from and to Budapest, including premium flights.

    As a frequent flyer, I’ll respectfully disagree with the experts. I often have trouble piecing together flights that will get me any where in a reasonable about of time. The record for budget airlines is dismal in my experience and they require that you make compromises such as landing at airports that are far from your intended destination. The killer is the inability to rescheduling. If you have to reschedule you might as well have paid for a full service flight. Lets not talk about horrid ground handling at all but a few locations. And customer service? I’ve got an outstanding complaint with WizzAir at the moment and if my last experience with them is any indication of how they will react….

    However, by July 27, Sólyom Hungarian Airlines had no licences to fly anywhere, neither national nor international.
    A baffling story!

    Indeed, I’m not sure how long the IATA approval process takes but they move at their own speed. They will look at every aspect of the operations before they’ll sign off. After that they’ve got the EU to deal with and then they’ve got to get slots. All said it’s difficult to believe they will get this turkey to fly.

    And this part is really a problem. I see no reason why Lufthansa or KLM could not have picked up Malev’s routes without having touch down in their home country first ‘cept that open skies really still aren’t that open.

    I’m going to say that aside from the obvious problems with the name Sólyom, particularly with the digraph ly, I like it. If Hungary is going to have a national airline it should have a national character to it. As long as the names come with some sort of explanation that is written in English and not Hunglish I’d see it as a opportunity to educate. The problem with the current aircraft naming scheme is what do you call the 8th plane 😉

  18. Latoya Caprice :
    Has anyone noticed that Solyom doesn’t even have a website up yet? And they are supposed to be flying in less than a month?!

    http://www.solyom.com/home.html which is the website for Janos Solyom, a pianist! The wikipedia (hu) page doesn’t list a website.. I think they may have trouble with URLs.. this should be fun 🙂

  19. The webpage is a bit strange – only in Hungarian, except for some job offers which are in English:
    http://www.solyomairways.com/FD0804.html

    PS and OT:

    I got some angry replies at pol.hu when someone was whining why they hadn’t chosen the name “Turul” and I proposed an alternative:

    Dögkeselyű …

    I know that’s a really bad joke – sorry …

  20. Now back to reality:

    We flew from Budapest to New York a few years ago with American Airlines – in April they started that direct connection – but it only lasted one summer …

    So I don’t know what kind of passengers will fill those planes – if they were associated with an alliance they could transport people to one of the hubs (Munich, Paris, London, Amsterdam) for intercontinental flights – but without an alliance ?

    Who really wants another Ryanair or Wizzair ?

    Btw, Ryanair gave up the Balaton airport – now that might be a new start for Sólyom if they offer connections from here to European destinations.

  21. “Btw, Ryanair gave up the Balaton airport – now that might be a new start…”

    In this regard, Hungarian mentality fits perfectly with the “Balkan mind”. Try flying to Lake Ohrid which has the cleanest water this side of Lake Baikal. You’d have to go Budapest to Vienna to Belgrade to Ohrid. You can’t even charter a flight to Ohrid. I guess the fear is that it would subtract from the Hungarian center of relaxed delight–that mud-puddle called Balaton.

  22. wolfi :
    The webpage is a bit strange – only in Hungarian, except for some job offers which are in English:
    http://www.solyomairways.com/FD0804.html
    PS and OT:
    I got some angry replies at pol.hu when someone was whining why they hadn’t chosen the name “Turul” and I proposed an alternative:
    Dögkeselyű …
    I know that’s a really bad joke – sorry …

    You shouldn’t be!
    The statue of a bird what Orbán so proudly unveiled in Ópusztaszer as “TURUL” in reality IS a scavenger, most likely a Griffon vulture, with straightforward and unsophisticated table manners…

    The monument:

    The original:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griffon_Vulture
    http://www.avianweb.com/griffonvultures.html

  23. Ron :

    Latoya Caprice :
    Has anyone noticed that Solyom doesn’t even have a website up yet? And they are supposed to be flying in less than a month?!

    http://www.solyomairways.com/

    Humm, that’s not really a website. I can’t imagine how long it’s going to take before they can do business online. These sites are surprisingly non-trivial to build and you can’t really buy and off the shelf version. Lufthansa has a large team in Budapest working on their site along with others in Cologne.

  24. Wondercat :
    What a disappointment the aeroplane’s livery is. Where, I ask you, are the runes? Rovásírás, people — it’s our future!

    It definitely has some Asian flavour from the eighties, so we are in the “right” path…
    Even if I’ve heard, that “our investors liked the image, since they also have red-white-green in their national colours…”
    Accidentally they have black too, but hey, you don’t say that loud, it’s an airline..!
    (“Never say die in the air” – as we know from Ozzy/Sabbath)

  25. The problem with the current aircraft naming scheme is what do you call the 8th plane

    Surely “Viktor” would be the obvious choice?

    Re the 7 dwarves, I thought I’d stumbled on their correct Hungarian names when I looked at my revision notes on verbs:

    Lenni, Menni, Enni, Inni, Jönni, Venni and Tenni.

  26. Spectator and LwiiH: A website is a website, whether or not they are doing business online. Although this website is very nineties.

    Btw my guess is that Oman is the big investor party behind this move.

    Reason as Spectator mentioned they have the same colors in the flag, plus the fact that they made some investment in Budapest in 2011 (Gresham Palace). Hunting with falcons is very big in these Arab countries. Further according to the State Investment Group of Oman they invest heavily in IT projects, so may be Solyom’s website and Gresham Palace is another way of getting some money back for their investment.

  27. “Sólyom Hungarian Airways starts the recruitment of its employees. We expect loyalty, high quality work and customer orientated service from our future colleagues. In return, we offer suitable waging in proportion.”

    Apparently they are also on the lookout for a good translator as well…. : )

  28. I had a wander round the Belvaros tonight and it absolutely buzzing with folk brought here for the weekend by the fapadosok.

    Where Budapest struggles at the moment is with the conference trade; a medical consultant from W Europe is not going to put up with the kind of rubbish customer service (occasionally) delivered by Mr O’Leary and co.

    Similarly there is a gap with a *reliable* early morning service to get the business and finance bods to London, Paris, Frankfurt and especially Madrid/Barca.

    As long as Solyom is realistic and doesn’t fall into the same prestige trap as Malev (we once flew to Amman with Hungary’s national airline and a grand total of 25 other passengers) there is a gap there to fill.

    But it will require planning and management skills, something which generally is not typical of Hungarian entrepreneurship on the grandiose level.

  29. Today I have heard an interesting theory about the financing:

    What would you say, if it was the case, that first the money have been moved to some middle-Eastern middleman from certain Hungarian owned accounts in order to invest back into this enterprise in order to make an ‘an masse’ money-laundering?

    Sounds far fetched at first, but try to remember to certain vague, unspecified but frequent business trips of certain person of unclear, but highly regarded diplomatic status has taken place with no visible result.

    Then again, such theories without solid ground still worth nothing, but at least they have some entertaining values.
    Or else.

  30. spectator :
    Today I have heard an interesting theory about the financing:
    What would you say, if it was the case, that first the money have been moved to some middle-Eastern middleman from certain Hungarian owned accounts in order to invest back into this enterprise in order to make an ‘an masse’ money-laundering?
    Sounds far fetched at first, but try to remember to certain vague, unspecified but frequent business trips of certain person of unclear, but highly regarded diplomatic status has taken place with no visible result.
    Then again, such theories without solid ground still worth nothing, but at least they have some entertaining values.
    Or else.

    I heard these rumors too, but then I saw this footage of a press conference of Wizz Air.

    If it is true that he knows who are the investors, then he has a good poker face.

  31. @Ron, it’s a site that anyone with any knowledge of HTML could knock up in less than 30 minutes.

    @oneill, exactly, what one would like to see if a flight that lands @ city around 8am and have one that leaves after 18 or 19:00. Ryanair and Wizz meet the schedule challenge but Easyjet doesn’t. However Ryan and Wizz leave you out in the middle of nowhere. That wipes out the advantage of options with 2 legs yet land a city.

  32. @spectator. I have also heard the story that it’s actually oligarch money that is flowing back to Hungary to finance a falcon. But then, why would they get the money out of the country into a safe haven with some difficulty, knowing tha the Hungarian economy will be driven against the wall eventually, just to bring it back to finance an airline of which all experts say it won’t have chance?

  33. @oneill. For us Wizzair works just fine, even if departure times in the morning are very early and arrivals at night rather late. At least at the Budapest end, they have the advantage of cutting the cab drive from Ferihegy to the Svobhegy down to 35 minutes (during the day it’s at least 60 minutes).

    As for landing out in the sticks, this is true for London and some places in Germany. But I live in the Ticino (Southern Switzerland). Originally Wizzair would only land in Bergamo for Milano. Now it also has flights to Milano Malpensa. There you hope on a train (station inside the terminal) and go to Locarno (one change). That’s very comfortable.

  34. Oneill, do you think other airlines don’t think about these too (when they are also suffering and in need of good ideas and insights)? Only Solyom, as a startup?

    You probably have not heard the joke of the industry: how can one be a millionaire? Be a bilionaire and invest in the aviation industry. (Actually Sandor Demjan told this joke in public some years ago, when he was supposedly investing with Hainan re Malev, but he did not want to do it without Hungarian government support given the well-known economics of the industry).

    These are some of the industry headlines just from Thursday. It does not look to me as the industry is in a good shape anywhere. Solyom is an idea of a madman, certainly not a realistic idea in any way:

    Southwest Fined for Playing Hard to Get With Valentine’s Day Sale Fares
    I’ll price luggage out of the hold, says Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary
    Airlines Ask Passengers to Pay for the Rising Cost of Fuel
    Alaska airports take a hit as Moody’s downgrades bonds amid cargo slowdown
    US: Stricter cargo security to cost airlines $2.8m a year
    Slow growth in China hits Asia-Pacific air freight performance with June volume down 1.8%: IATA
    Qantas bound for perfect profitability storm
    Frontier Airlines to end service to Albuquerque
    Japan Airlines April-June net profit down 31.9% at $187 million
    Skymark Airlines reports operating loss in 1QFY2013, FY guidance remains unchanged

  35. Minusio :
    @spectator. I have also heard the story that it’s actually oligarch money that is flowing back to Hungary to finance a falcon. But then, why would they get the money out of the country into a safe haven with some difficulty, knowing tha the Hungarian economy will be driven against the wall eventually, just to bring it back to finance an airline of which all experts say it won’t have chance?

    It could be a money laundering scheme… but for that it is attracting way too much attention.

  36. I think the possibilities are: 1. Vago is a madman and naive investors will loose their money in a short time, 2. Vago is a genius and will manage to do the impossible 3. there is something fishy going on here.

  37. Meanwhile back on ground where the ignorant masses live we call birds of prey “sas”.
    A detested bird, it kills pigeons being raised for soup…..and the rare plane flies ever so high…

    So just what percent of Hungarians have ever flown ? even once ?

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