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East Europe airlines shrivel amid EU cuts

– For Prague-based public relations consultant Joe Cook, just finding a flight may prove to be the toughest part of a business trip to Bulgaria this month.

With Czech Airlines cutting services to Sofia, Cook must travel through Vienna or Munich at twice the time and cost. It’s the same story for journeys around much of Eastern Europe as curbs in state spending and a dearth of investors among larger carriers forces government-owned operators to downsize networks.

“Flight-related costs have increased and one’s choices are reduced,” Cook said. “You start thinking, ‘Do I really need to go there?’ ”

Europe’s sovereign debt crisis is weighing on carriers from the Balkans to the Baltic as austerity programs coincide with high fuel prices and a European Union clampdown on aid.

At the same time, Air France-KLM Group, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and British Airways parent IAG, the region’s three major airlines, are shying away from takeovers to focus on stemming losses at short-haul units swollen by an earlier spate of merger activity.

Eastern Europe’s worst travel crunch to date came with the collapse of Hungarian flag carrier Malev Zrt., which folded after 66 years on Feb. 3 when an EU decision compelling it to repay aid led the state to pull the plug.

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