11 February 2018

What do flights tell us about the relationship between Czechia and Vietnam?

At one point last year, I wrote about the relationship between Bratislava and the British Isles—most planes leaving Bratislava are going to either London-Stansted or Dublin airports—and suggested that Ryanair, Europe's leading low-cost carrier, was the flag-carrier of Slovakia. Now, as it turns out, I wasn't the first person to suggest this (someone did so in 2013), and apparently there is a new flag carrying airline venture in the works. So my perspective has changed.

What hasn't changed is that we can learn quite a lot from the air routes available between cities.

I've been interested in this as of late because Czechia and Vietnam are trying to establish direct flights between Prague and Hanoi as part of their high-level pledge to strengthen ties. But that direct flight hasn't come to fruition yet, and it remains to be seen whose flag-carrier will operate the route (Vietnam or ČSA?...the intrigue!).

Checking flights for a random future date, Wednesday, 16 May, the fastest and cheapest way of getting from Prague to Hanoi is via Moscow on Aeroflot: 

This is interesting: if you start in other European capitals, it's often the same story. No matter where you start in Europe, it's usually cheapest and fastest to fly through Moscow. There are easy, surface level reasons to explain this: Moscow is a big city between the desired origin and destination, Aeroflot has frequent service to the cities in question, Aeroflot is competitively priced, the earth is an oblate spheroid and that's the shortest way to do it, etc. etc.

But we know that airlines are not responding only to "the market" (in the sense of ticket prices vs. fuel costs vs. landing fees)—international air travel is a highly political, highly geographic industry. So I'm not interested in the quick explanation—because beneath the easy explanation are thousands of complicated reasons why things are the way they are today.

I don't know I can suggest any conclusions from this one data point. But I can speculate, and I will: One of my speculations is that Aeroflot has flown these Europe-Vietnam routes for decades, dating back to when Moscow served as a gateway between the "West" and spheres of Soviet influence. I think that these geographic legacies persist, that Moscow is still the most important node in the transport network of former Soviet-aligned countries, and that paying attention to how we move between places can tell us plenty about the places themselves.

There's more to this story (trains!), and when I get another few minutes I'll write it up...

Emergence Part 1

I've been in a lull after a frenzy on this project. Most of the initial contacts have been made, and now it's up to me to write letters and request meetings, and data, and help. I'm not confident that's really where I am just yet—I feel I have much more to learn before getting to that point.

So I guess this is a reading weekend (or a reading week). In order to move forward, something new will have to emerge, and there's no real way to force emergence.

In the meantime, I'm working on a couple of other tasks: trying to answer the question, "What is geography?" step by step being the main diversion of the last week.

Here's to a part two later in the day...


04 February 2018

Moving ahead, falling behind

I am far behind my goal of writing three blog posts per week—I want to think this is because I'm too busy working to narrate what's going on, but truth be told, contributing to this blog just seems to escape me. There is always next week...

This week brought a few more developments—I feel I'm moving ahead on multiple fronts. Prof. Pickles and I are now in touch with about a half-dozen academics who are working international migration and linkages in Czechia. I've also completed the initial application for funding from my academic fellowship, which necessarily demanded nailing down specifics and drawing rough plans: itineraries, schedules, etc.

I'm not sure there's too much more to say at 10pm on a Sunday, so I'll keep it short.

26 January 2018

Good news from Czechia

This week brings more progress and more work to do...

We're now in touch with a number of different scholars who all have connections to researchers at Charles University in Prague who work on exactly the kind of inquiry I'm interested in—in particular we've been encouraged to get in touch with Ludek Sykora, whose anthropological research into Vietnamese food communities in Prague is right up my alley. As it stands, I've been putting in the hours reading all the literature I can find by people who catch my attention—and keeping track of which scholars have the most overlap with my particular research questions. It feels like this week there is both too much and not enough to write about. The main takeaway for me has been the incredible speed with which my advisor was able to establish contact and solicit help from his colleagues in Czechia, who have already been incredibly helpful after just a few email exchanges.

The parallel to all this academic work is my early sketching of how exactly to triangulate the questions I'm hoping to ask. My notebook this week is full of diagrams connecting the three broad areas of interest: inquiry into the structural and system connections between Central and Eastern Europe and Southeast/East Asia; the shifting political aims of right-wing governments in C.E.E. and their increasing interest in economic relationships with authoritarian powers (e.g. China and Vietnam); and the impact on/of the Vietnamese community with respect to these changing diplomatic relationships. Tomorrow I'll upload a photo of one of these diagrams, which will hopefully illustrate what I'm talking about.

There's the simultaneous question of how best to tell this story: I've been interested in shooting a video if possible, and definitely documenting the experience through photographs. My non-practical side bought a 1982 Zenit TTL, a 35mm camera made in the Soviet Union, with the purposes of shooting stills this summer. Someone will convince me to use something more flexible, I'm sure.

The final thought of this week is just how quickly the wheels can turn if you're willing to ask a specific question: give someone a vague question, and they'll respond with vague interest. Give someone a specific (and original) question, and they are much more likely to want to find the answer.

19 January 2018


We've been off school for three days because of a massive snow storm here, and while most of my time has been occupied enjoying the weather, I have actually gotten quite a lot done (this is the advantage of independent study: no wasted time). My to-do list is mostly checked off: business cards ordered, introductory letters are in progress, IRB pre-application is underway. Not that those checked boxes mean anything just yet: there are probably a thousand more tasks to take care of before fieldwork begins. Reaching the end of the list just means it's time to make a new list.*

So that's the plan today. 

With a few practicalities taken care of, there are whole bunch of new things to think about. 
  • Who exactly to send letters to (I have a preliminary list)
    • Czech/Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce
    • MigraceOnline.cz
    • Multikulturni centrum Praha
    • Institute for Planning and Development Prague
    • Charles University Faculty of Science Dept. of Social Geography and Regional Development
    • Charles University Film Studies — there is a grad student who works on cinematic representations of Prague
  • When to go to Prague and how long to stay
  • What to prepare for — interviews? I want to film these if I'm going to conduct them, so that's an extra consideration
  • How to go about answering these questions (this is a perennial to-do item)
Things to investigate: 
  • EU-VFTA trade agreements and Czech pivot toward engagement with what some Western governments fear are more authoritarian regimes
    • Bilateralism vs. multilateralism within the EU
    • Linkages between these countries
  • ETUI — European Trade Union Institute
    • Have they published anything about Czech-Vietnamese relations? Find in particular Czech scholarly opinions

*In the future, I'd like to attach a photo of my lists & notes to these posts, because I believe they illustrate the chaos that is keeping track of all the necessary research threads. 

16 January 2018

And we're back!

The new semester is a week underway, there's snow in the forecast, and I've just re-registered ezrawitsch.com.* Because I've got a minute, and that URL should ideally point somewhere, it's the perfect moment to inaugurate this blog with a quick thought about what's coming up next.

Today, I had my second meeting with Prof. John Pickles, my mentor and advisor on an as-of-yet unnamed research project about the urban experience of the Vietnamese community in Prague. I want to keep track of this project, to archive it, to produce something that might preserve my experience—for my own future reference, for others to follow and send me their thoughts on the project, and (most importantly) for the hell of it. 

So far, I've got small questions (how best to keep notes) and big questions (who to contact, and what to say to them). I'm ordering business cards. It occurs to me that much of the process of developing a research project is simply not forgetting the actionable minutiae necessary to make contacts, build networks, and answer questions. 

At the same time, developing this project is demanding that I be curious about topics I know relatively little about. It's about moving from general questions to operational questions. Dr. Pickles pointed out in our last meeting that one either builds on strength (i.e. ability) or energy (i.e. curiosity). I think this is good advice for a young researcher—strength and energy are essentially the dominant currencies of learning. 

I have a short to-do list for the coming week: 
  • Register ezrawitsch.com
  • Make business cards — interestingly, according to Dr. Pickles, the academic culture of Central and Eastern Europe is relatively formal when compared to that of the United States, and business cards are a must, even for a young student. 
  • Paragraph edit/send — finish writing a draft of a request for data and information on my research topic
  • IRB preparation
  • Explore new contacts
My goal is to contribute something to this blog three times a week over the course of my research, even if they're relatively short contributions. 

*Sidenote: Google Domains makes the process far, far, far easier than it used to be. I highly recommend their service, though no one is paying me to do so. 

28 September 2017

Slovakia's Flag Carrying Airline Is Irish

p_7693 A lineup of Ryanair planes at Bratislava – M.R. Štefánik Airport (credit: aero.de)

I have always been interested in travel: not only the individual act of travel, but also the means by which people travel, the motivations that drive individuals to travel, and the impacts (economic, environmental, political, cultural) of travel.After working in Central/Eastern Europe in the summer of 2016 and studying abroad in 2017, I became interested in patterns of domestic and international migration in Europe. This interest was activated after an experience travelling to Slovakia to visit my former colleagues. Waiting in line to board a flight from London to Bratislava in March 2017, I observed that the vast majority of passengers were carrying Slovak passports—meaning most passengers were traveling to their country of national origin from the United Kingdom, not the other way around. Contrary to the reputation of Ryanair as a leisure-travel airline, the passengers on this particular flight were not tourists—they were mothers traveling with children, businesspeople heading to Bratislava for the weekend, students and young adults.

There are dozens of questions this observation inspires, but I'm interested in to what extent Ryanair, an exemplary low-cost airline, has come to dominate the air traffic of Bratislava’s only airport since 2009. I want to suggest that Ryanair provides a critical, non-leisure link in Europe’s transportation network, and that by dominating Slovak air travel, an Irish low-cost airline has become the de facto flag-carrier for a small, Eastern European country.

Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, provides data on air traffic between the airports within the E.U. Data on air traffic between airports is reported by member states and aggregated by the E.U., and it is available freely via an internet portal. I downloaded data on the busiest air routes originating from Bratislava – M.R. Štefánik Airport and analyzed it using Microsoft Excel. My analysis begins in 2015 and works backwards in three-year increments to 2009 (Table 1).

Table 1: A screen capture of excel data showing the number of passengers traveling between Bratislava and the ten most common destinations.

The busiest routes in December 2015 were Bratislava-London Stansted (19,052 passengers) and Bratislava-Dublin (9,936 passengers). Flights between Bratislava and these two airports accounted for 47.3% of the total passenger volume between Bratislava and its main destination airports. In other words, approximately five in ten passengers leaving Slovakia for common destinations in December of 2015 were heading to the British Isles.

This data is relevant because London Stansted and Dublin airports are the primary administrative and operational centers for Ryanair, and few other carriers based at these airports operate flights to Bratislava. Though it is not a perfect approximation, it is likely that the vast majority of passengers travelling on routes between Bratislava, London Stansted, and Dublin airports were Ryanair customers, suggesting that Ryanair is the dominant airline not only on these particular routes, but for Bratislava more generally.Compare this dominance to three years previously, and the picture remains mostly the same: of 48,088 total passengers in December 2012, flights to Dublin and London-Stansted accounted for 47.4% of traffic. Though total passenger numbers were 22% below the 2015 figure, these data confirm that Ryanair has held a prominent position at the Bratislava airport for at least the last few years.Examining the data for December 2009, the longevity and magnitude of Ryanair’s presence in Bratislava becomes even more obvious: in the last month of 2009, 61.3% of passengers leaving Bratislava were on their way to either London-Stansted or Dublin. 

The significant difference between the 2012 and 2009 figures may suggest a number of conclusions, including the possibility that the effects of the global recession resulted in decreased overall air traffic, especially among traditional airlines. Ryanair, as a low-cost carrier, may not have been as affected by these economic trends because of their low ticket prices, hence their large market share.

This analysis of passenger traffic for specific routes raises a number of important questions: most importantly, what flights between these airports are not flown by Ryanair? My investigation of route history suggests there are very few non-Ryanair flights scheduled on these particular routes, but it is possible that there are missing data. Additionally, these data do not show who the passengers are: considering my theory about Ryanair’s critical role in European transportation, it would be important in a deeper analysis to account for the purpose of travel, not merely the volume of passengers. 

Yet there is no question that an airline controlling the majority of passenger traffic on a given route will affect the economic and social relationships between origin and destination. Future analyses would benefit from consulting other data sources available through Eurostat (for example, more detailed route data categorized by airline) and  proprietary data available via subscription through the International Air Transport Association.

The supremacy of Ryanair in Bratislava matters because Slovakia has no “flag carrier” airline, i.e. a national air service operator with deep ties to the country. Unlike neighbors Czechia and Poland, both of whom have national airlines (ČSA and LOT, respectively) Slovakia is served only by foreign airlines. Furthermore, Bratislava, a European capital, is not served by most traditional European airlines. Instead, by dominating the international traffic of the country’s largest airport, Ryanair has become the unlikely—and unofficial—flag carrier for Slovakia.