2022 October-November Analysis Featured

How are Georgia’s airports navigating the post-Covid travel boom?

Canceled flights, fewer routes, and staff shortages were enough to make any traveler reach for the aspirin this summer as airlines in the EU canceled over 15,000 flights in August alone. But as major shortages of airport personnel in Europe had many waiting in hours-long security queues and flight disruptions left mounds of unclaimed luggage piling up, a visit to one of Georgia’s main airports provided a calmer – and noticeably less disrupted – travel experience.

As recovery from the pandemic’s travel fallout languished this summer, Tbilisi became an unexpected bright spot in the travel landscape. It faced far fewer cancellations than its European neighbors, and while traveler numbers are still below what they once were, the country is well on track to make a full recovery.

Data analyzed by TBC Capital indicates that Georgian tourist arrivals ended the summer at 68% of their 2019 levels, but arrivals by air, they note, have already fully recovered.

“In August of 2022, we served 363,830 passengers at Tbilisi International Airport, which is 92% of the passengers for the same month of 2019,” a spokesperson for TAV Georgia, which operates the Tbilisi and Batumi airports, recently told Investor.ge. Always a favored summer destination, the draw of the seaside put Batumi International Airport’s “passenger figures up by 7% in comparison to 2019.”

A look at Kutaisi International Airport’s passenger figures provides even greater cause for optimism. In August, the airport, which was opened in 2012 and has attracted numerous low-cost airlines in the years since, boasted a 27% increase in travelers compared to the same period in 2019.

Part of this rapid and impressive recovery across Georgia’s airports can be, according to representatives of the airport operators, attributed to both preparation and continued expansion throughout the pandemic.

“Covid-19 difficulties continue, but we now know better how to manage these challenges,” a TAV Georgia spokesperson told Investor.ge. When Covid-19 and the resulting loss in tourism hit Georgia, the country was already in the process of expanding its tourism industry. But rather than making sudden, panicked decisions based on the current tumult, the TAV spokesperson says they took a long-term view, investing in what they knew worked to ensure they would again see success as tourism resumed.

“Regarding staff shortages, we can say proudly that maybe we are among those very few companies who didn’t have any staff reduction,” notes the TAV Georgia spokesperson. “We did not lay off a single employee, because we think that our staff is our main investment.”

And that gamble seems to have paid off. While TAV Georgia declined to provide their exact level of revenue recovery, they did note that “according to IATA, airports and air companies will be able to recover pre-pandemic figures in 2023,” intimating that the current trend of traveler numbers meeting and exceeding previous years’ figures had put their airports on a similar trajectory. To that end, despite various travel issues, United Airports of Georgia, the state-owned enterprise that owns all of Georgia’s airports and manages Kutaisi International Airport, ended 2021 with a profit of 19 million GEL.

New routes and renovations

Alongside staff preparations came physical renovations to Georgia’s airports.

Last year, $17 million was spent on Batumi’s airport to open a new terminal capable of serving 1.2 million passengers, with more renovations planned for the coming years. Also in 2021, Kutaisi airport completed a major overhaul, increasing its size by six times and equipping it to accommodate 2.5 million passengers per year. The total investment in this project was 110 million GEL, or around $39 million.

Across Georgian airports, renovations carried into the new year. In May of 2022, a new taxiway opened at Tbilisi International Airport to be primarily used for cargo. The airport also invested an additional million euros into expanding its food offerings, adding a new restaurant and introducing Georgia’s first installment of the popular British coffee chain Costa, which is slated to open in the departures terminal this autumn. Kutaisi airport took on further renovations, repairing runways and renovating its train station to allow greater access to other areas of Georgia.

Pushes like these have led Skytrax to rate Tbilisi International Airport among the 10 most improved and passenger-oriented airports of the year; Tbilisi and Batumi airports were also ranked 5th and 6th respectively in the category of “Best Airports in Eastern Europe 2022.”

Further to these renovations and upgrades, routes have also expanded, with numerous airlines announcing their intentions to begin offering service into Georgia.

Currently, the top five airlines flying into Georgia in terms of ridership are Turkish Airlines, Wizz Air Hungary, Pegasus, Belavia, and FlyDubai. Soon, these airlines may face competition from the likes of Saudi airline Flyadeal, which made its inaugural Tbilisi flight in July—or Thai airline AirAsia X, which announced in September that it will begin direct charter flights from Bangkok to Tbilisi two times a week in early October.

Other carriers, such as Condor Airlines, Air Moldova, and Southwind Airlines, will soon have a lasting place on the Georgian travel market, with the airlines announcing routes from Frankfurt, Chisinau, and Antalya, respectively.

These new airlines, and growing efforts of established airlines like Wizz Air, means that there are more pathways to enter the country than ever before.

“Starting in January 2022 we have opened some new routes, including Frankfurt-Tbilisi, Riga-Batumi during the summer season, [and] Tashkent-Batumi,” stated the TAV Georgia spokesperson. “Saudi Arabian low-cost carrier Flyadeal is performing direct flights from Riyadh-Tbilisi. Eurowings is performing direct flights on the route Stuttgart-Tbilisi. Also, Air Astana resumed its regular flights from Nur-Sultan to Tbilisi.”

For Kutaisi, Wizz Air recently restored its flights from Kutaisi to Paris and Tallinn, began new flights to Abu Dhabi and Berlin, added a new aircraft to its Kutaisi base, and recently met with Mariam Kvrivishvili, the Georgian Deputy Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, to discuss introducing more routes to the country.

Newly renovated Kutaisi International Airport now has the capacity to serve 2.5 million passengers a year

Looking ahead

As growth continues, TAV Georgia has its eyes set on the future. Though its contract with the Georgian government expires in 2027, the company is making plans for airport renovations and expansions well beyond that date.

“We are working on Tbilisi International Airport’s master plan for the next 20 years,” explained the TAV Georgia spokesperson. “During the master plan preparation process, the managing company of Tbilisi and Batumi international airports TAV Georgia is cooperating with an authoritative international aviation expert and consulting company, ADP Ingénierie (ADPI), which is one of the leading expert and consulting companies in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia in terms of airport planning and development.”

“Work on the master plan will finish by the end of the ongoing year, and the document will be handed to the state in January 2023,” the spokesperson continued.

Outside of the airport, slow strides are being made when it comes to direct US – Georgia flights. While talks have been ongoing for years (initial discussions were called off at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic), it seems like those talks have begun anew, with some speculating that direct flights between the two countries could be announced soon.

“The first test flights between America and Georgia may be performed at the end of the year or at the beginning of next year,” AmCham Vice President Irakli Baidashvili, told Business Formula in May of this year. “As far as I know, there are already some very interesting projects for direct flights from the United States to Georgia. This will give a big stimulus to the growth of tourists in Georgia.”