We Need a New Runway: an Interview with the Director of the Odesa Airport

When will the new terminal at the Odesa airport be completed, will there be a new runway, why are airlines returning, and how is the Odesa airport competing with other airports? The Odesa airport’s Director Vitalii Portianko answers these questions in an interview with the CFTS portal.
Mykola Zasiadko 18 August 2016 13:56

It is always hot in Odesa in the summer. It was particularly hot at the Odesa airport on Tuesday, 12 July, when the first test flight by Bravo Airways was welcomed ceremonially. This happy event was slightly cooled by the governor of the Odesa region, Mikheil Saakashvili, who said that the airport could stop operation at any time. Despite this, the Odesa airport continues to develop. We met with Portianko to find out more about the operations of the airport.

Portianko is also concerned about the future of the airport despite the good mood and the joyful event. It is necessary to prepare for the commissioning of the airport’s new terminal before autumn. An even more pressing issue is the construction of a new runway, without which the airport cannot develop. However, our conversation with Portianko began with the outcome of the airport’s operations in the first half of the year.

On the outcome of the first six months of the year

What are the results of the airport’s operations in the first half of the year?

In order to understand the results of the first six months of the year, it is necessary to take a little excursion into history. Flights between Ukraine and the Russian Federation stopped in October last year. In Odesa, Russian destinations accounted for about 25% of the total volume of traffic. This figure reached 30-35% in the summer. Now, we have to replace this volume with flights to other destinations. Therefore, this fact should be taken into account when comparing the figures for 2015 and 2016.

The airport handled 423,104 passengers in the first half of 2016

Passenger traffic increased by 0.5% in the first six months of this year, compared with the first half of 2015. In quantitative terms, the figures are as follows: the airport handled 421,451 passengers in the first half of 2015 and 423,104 in the first half of 2016.

How is the summer navigation going?

Summer navigation is active. In addition to the existing routes, seasonal flights from Odesa to Batumi, Baku, Vilnius, Yerevan, Thessaloniki, Tbilisi, and Tivat have resumed in accordance with tradition. New and additional direct flights to Bourgas, Dalaman, Munich, Kyiv, Prague, and Tallinn have been launched. Austrian Airlines has added three weekly flights on the Odesa-Vienna route in addition to the existing four while the Belavia airline has added seven more flights on the Odesa-Minsk route, on which it now flies 14 times a week. The average occupancy rate on flights now stands at about 78%. This is the average figure – it is lower for some airlines and higher for others – but we are generally satisfied with the progress of the summer season.

On returning carriers

Airlines began curtailing their flights to Odesa in 2014, but an improvement was noted last year. We are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of carriers in 2016. To what do you attribute this increased activity among airlines?

The year 2014 was very difficult. The events in eastern Ukraine and the tragic events of 2 May in Odesa had a negative impact on our foreign partners and passenger traffic as a whole. In part, they continue to have an impact now. Here is an example: the Estonian carrier Nordica recently began flying to Odesa. We held long negotiations with them. They had doubts about possible instability in the Odesa region, but we managed to convince them that everything is stable in Odesa and that it is worth flying there. We are speaking about Estonia, which is located not far from Ukraine. What can one say about other European countries?

In addition to Nordica, other airlines have begun flying to Odesa. For example, the Czech Airlines is back. How did you manage to convince them to return to Odesa? Was it their initiative?

We are currently holding talks with the Czech Airlines on increasing the frequency of its flights

The decision to perform flights on one route or another is always based on a complex set of components, which includes an initiative on the part of the carrier and marketing by the airport aimed at helping the carrier to achieve the desired results as soon as possible when it begins operating on a new route or when it is expanding its presence on an existing route. We are currently holding talks with the Czech Airlines on increasing the frequency of its flights. Firstly, we are talking about the winter season. Lufthansa has announced extension of its flights to the winter. In addition, Austrian Airlines – one of the oldest European carriers that previously flew to Odesa – has returned to us. It stopped flying to Odesa in 2011, but it has returned this year. It initially performed flights four times a week and it now performs flights seven times a week. We are also negotiating with the other carriers that fly to us in the summer to extend their flights to the winter season. I am optimistic.

Why does the Latvian airline airBaltic not fly to Odesa?

We already have experience of cooperation with airBaltic. It operated on the Odesa-Riga route until 2014. We are in constant contact with them, and we were told during one of the latest rounds of negotiations that they were interested in resuming Riga-Odesa flights, but they currently do not have available aircraft to launch flights on this route. AirBaltic will fly to Odesa as soon as it takes delivery of new airplanes. Currently, flights to the Baltic region are operated by two airlines: the Estonian-based Nordica flies to Tallinn and the Ukrainian carrier UIA flies to Vilnius.

AirBaltic will fly to Odesa as soon as it takes delivery of new airplanes

Ukrainian and Bulgarian delegations recently discussed resumption of flights between Odesa and Varna. What work is being done in this area? What are the obstacles?

The first charter flight on the Odesa-Burgas route was performed on 3 July. Together with the Dniproavia airline, we worked hard to launch flights on this route and involved a tour operator that expressed a desire to take a block of seats. We continue to work in this direction and we hope that the result will be the launch of regular direct flights between Odesa and Bulgaria.

On airport infrastructure

The state program for development of airports until the year 2023 contains a section on uniting all aerodromes under the control of a single enterprise, followed by separation of airports and terminals. What do you think about this step? Will the Odesa airport lose because of this?

I have a good attitude to any program that provides tools for development of airport infrastructure. If the government has made such a decision, it means it was necessary; especially considering the fact that merger of aerodromes is a worldwide practice, particularly in developing countries. Such a move would allow the government to generate funds centrally from their operation and use the funds for modernization of airports more efficiently. I hope that this step will provide an impetus to development of airports.

We plan to commission a new terminal building and utilities in September

On infrastructure: at what stage is the construction of the airport?

The construction of the terminal is in the final stage. We plan to commission the building and utilities in September.

Does that mean that the new terminal will begin receiving passengers in September?

After commissioning of the facility, setup of the passenger service technology – commissioning and startup of the installed equipment, training of personnel training, etc. – inside the facility will begin. It is also necessary to obtain all the necessary permits for passenger services and certify the customs checkpoint. Flights will be migrated to the new terminal gradually in order to avoid disrupting flights. Domestic flights will be the first to be migrated, followed by charter flights and regular international flights. I think it will begin full operation in the 2017 summer season.

Is it necessary to finish constructing new runways for aircraft?

No, they already exist. In this regard, everything is ready.

What will happen to the old terminal?

The old terminal will be mothballed.

Mikheil Saakashvili said that the old terminal could be transformed into a museum...

That is a good idea. Anything can happen.

In what condition is the runway?

Our runway belongs to the first category. It has been certified and declared safe for flights. However, this runway is morally and commercially obsolete for development of the airport, considering the fact that our region is in demand. We need a new runway that will be capable of receiving any type of modern aircraft around the clock and all year round. We have very difficult weather conditions – frequent fogs and, consequently, poor visibility – from October to March. A new runway will allow us to receive more aircraft faster and better.

Is there space for construction of a new runway?

There is space, but that is not the main issue. The project for construction of a new runway was approved in 2013 and it passed all the relevant expert assessments. A project for reconstruction of the current runway is currently being considered. However, everything currently rests on the lack of funding.

We need a new runway that will be capable of receiving any type of modern aircraft around the clock and all year round

Does that mean that there is a question mark over the new runway?

Reconstruction of the runway was included in the targeted state program for development of airports until 2030, which the Cabinet of Ministers approved at the beginning of the year. The issue is under the control of the Ministry of Infrastructure. There could be an "economic bottleneck" if the issue of the runway is not resolved. We have a new terminal that will be able to receive up to 3.5 million passengers and a bottleneck – i.e. the old runway – that limits our development. We try to develop the airport, but our work very often depends on this bottleneck.

Will arrival of the European the low-cost carriers Wizz Air and Ryanair also depend on this runway?

Yes, we have been told that repeatedly. The director of Wizz Air has announced that the airline is ready to return to Odesa, but only if there are new proposals on the runway. This means that the specifications of the runway have to change.

On competing airports

Are you competing with the Chisinau airport?

The Odesa airport has a geographical location that is both unique and complex. We are surrounded by airports that are developing rapidly. Chisinau is one of those. We estimate the number of Ukrainians that fly through Chisinau at 150-200 people per day.

Are those many people?

That is not a small number. Figuratively speaking, that is one flight. However, there is a reverse process: residents of Moldova fly through Odesa. In part, we are competing with each other; in part, we complement each other in terms of flight capability. This is a market, and the passenger himself chooses where it is more convenient and/or more profitable for him to fly.

Last year Saakashvili proposed ​​building a second airport near Odesa (at the site of a military airfield in Liman, 70 kilometers from the city). How do you feel about this idea?

The aviation community can only support development of the industry’s infrastructure. Existence of a second airport is a good idea, but the feasibility study needs to be detailed.

About Portianko

How did you get into the aviation industry?

Honestly speaking, I did not dream of being a pilot. I got into the aviation industry by coincidence, but I like this job and I hope that I am doing well in an executive position.

You have headed the airport since 2013. How has it changed since then? What can you describe as your greatest achievement?

I repeat: aviation is a collective work. A single director cannot come in and change everything at once. It is teamwork. Passengers should assess what we have managed to achieve. As the director of the airport, I am happy with even the 0.5% growth that we achieved in the first half of this year. Perhaps the greatest achievement of our team will be the commissioning of the new terminal complex this fall.