Issue 2, 2017. April-May

   

GEORGIA'S INNOVATIVE PUSH TO DEVELOP ITS AIR SERVICES

More flights, expanded facilities and better public transportation are just a few of the plans to improve Georgia's air sector.

Inge Snip

When you travel as much as travel blogger Daria Kholodilina does, a country has to do a lot to make an impression from the moment of arrival. Kholodilina, who came to Georgia for the first time in 2012 from Ukraine, says she knew she liked Georgia immediately.

"It was a rather an emotional thing," Kholodilina told Investor.ge. "In the airport I was impressed by 'TBILISI LOVES YOU' on the doors leading to the arrivals," which, she said, really added to her experience.

Photo by George Surguladze


Wave of Innovation

Over the last several years, Georgia has worked hard to improve air services to accommodate the growing number of visitors and tourists arriving every year.

One change is Tbilisi airport's new solar panels, located directly outside the airport in the parking lot. The panels, which were partly funded by the government of Japan, can generate up to 337,000 kWh electricity a year, which covers 40 percent of the airport's total consumption.

The solar panels started to operate in July 2016, and are part of a wider push by Georgia to innovate and upgrade its air services to attract more international visitors to the country.

"I am sure that all these efforts and developments will make Georgia's aviation sector even more competitive, attractive, safe and flexible in the region and globally as well," noted Igor Aptsiauri, First Deputy Director at the Georgian Civil Aviation Agency.

Renewable energy sources aren't the only improvements at Shota Rustaveli Airport, Georgia's main airport in Tbilisi. Last summer, TAV Georgia, a Turkish airport company leasing the airport from United Airports Georgia, opened a new runway, upgrading it from CAT I to CAT II to cater for growing air traffic and larger planes.

Currently, TAV Georgia is working on a new arrival terminal with a capacity to receive 3.25 million passengers per year. The new terminal is expected to open in September 2017.

"The airlines will have the possibility to increase the frequency of their flights to Tbilisi, as the potential of the airport will be further developed significantly," Aptsiauri explained to Investor.ge about the significance of these changes.

For example, Georgia Airways is scheduled to start direct flights to London Gatwick Airport in March and to Prague in May, according to Givi Davitashvili, General Director of Georgian Airways, Georgia Today reported.

And with more visitors travelling to Georgia-there was an increase of 7.6 percent from 2015 to 2016 according to the Georgian National Tourism Agency (GNTA)-the new terminal is a welcome move to accommodate these travelers, Aptsiauri told Investor.ge.

In lieu of the increase in travelers, more transportation options to travel from the airport into the city are also now available. Starting in January, Tbilisi's transportation department decided to run the bus on the airport route during the night as well, when most flights arrive and depart, with a bus going every 40 minutes.

However, not everyone is enthusiastic about the new bus schedule. Gocha Botkoveli, a 52-year-old bus driver on the airport route, grouchily explains no one is using the bus at night..."Except several 'bomzhi' every night," he says ,describing homeless people taking advantage of a cheap, warm, and dry place for the night.

Photo by George Surguladze


Learning from Kutaisi

Brazilian born, London-based travel blogger Pedro Richardson thinks Tbilisi can learn from the experience in Kutaisi. "It is interesting to see that in Kutaisi they found a transport solution that is both cost-effective and convenient-I'm referring to the 'Georgian Bus' where they use a smart and comfortable van for six passengers, with enough room for luggage, and drop them at their destination at a very low cost," Richardson explained to Investor.ge.

But transportation is not the only way Kutaisi Airport is stepping up its game to accommodate the increasing number of tourists each year.

United Airports Georgia operates Kutaisi airport and has increased the number of flights, with a 121% increase in January 2017, compared to the previous year.

"There is good news regarding Kutaisi International Airport as well. The new expansion plan is already being implemented to further increase the number of aircraft parking spaces.

The aim of the expansion is to satisfy existing demand and also to accommodate the expected increase in travelers that we have forecasted due to the EU visa-waiver program that was recently granted to us," Aptsiauri said.

One of the new flights UAG is introducing this year is a direct flight to the UK offered by WizzAir, the airline most servicing Kutaisi, and which is starting a base operating from Kutaisi.

There are also reports that Irish low-cost airlines Ryanair will also start flying to Kutaisi.

Increasing cheap connections to Europe are a major opportunity for Georgians wishing to travel to Europe.

"My son lives in Germany," Nodar Razmadze, a 45-year-old merchant at the local Eliava market tells Investor.ge. "I can't visit him unless he pays for everything. This might give me the opportunity to see my grandson for the first time," Razmadze noted with a smile.

U.S. PRECLEARANCE: GATEWAY TO STREAMLINED FLIGHTS?

United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is stationed in six countries and 15 airports abroad, allowing passengers to go through U.S. immigration, customs and agriculture inspections prior to their arrival in the United States.

The program precleared 18 million travelers-over 15 percent of all commercial air travelers-arriving in the U.S. in 2016.

CBP is currently located in Dublin and Shannon in Ireland; Aruba; Freeport and Nassau in The Bahamas; Bermuda; Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates; and Calgary, Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Winnipeg in Canada.

The first preclearance service was started in Ireland in 2009; in 2016, more than a million people used the facilities at the Dublin airport last year, and 200,000 at the Shannon airport, The Irish Times reported.

Georgia is not currently considering a similar program, according to officials.