Bernie Baldwin

Pre-pandemic, Georgia’s airports were growing rapidly. The task now is to recreate the same growth levels.

“Month to month, the traffic recovery process, compared to 2019, is quite rapid.”

That’s the message from Tamara Archuadze, director-general of United Airports of Georgia (UAG), as the company rebuilds from the Covid-19 restrictions imposed on scheduled air traffic in Georgia between February 2020 and February 2021. “Since then there has been significant traffic recovery,” she declares.

UAG is Georgia’s 100% state owned enterprise, which owns all the country’s airports, including three international airports – Tbilisi International Airport and Batumi International Airport (both of which are operated by TAV Airports Holding Company), and Kutaisi David The Builder International Airport (operated by UAG itself) – plus two domestic airports, Mestia Airport (Queen Tamar Airport), which supports the mountain regions of Georgia, and Ambrolauri Airport.

Archuadze is open and honest about how hard the country was hit by the pandemic. “Its impact was quite severe. Certain restrictions on some routes were imposed right from the beginning of February 2020 and scheduled flights were fully restricted by the end of March,” she explains. “For a certain period, only a limited number of scheduled and repatriation flights were operated to/from Georgia’s hub airports to maintain strategic air connectivity.”

Then, as noted, the recovery began in February 2021. “Tbilisi traffic had recovered by 70% by October 2021; at Kutaisi, the monthly traffic recovery averaged 50% by the end of the IATA summer season 2021, while Batumi successfully exceeded the monthly traffic figures of 2019. The number of airlines operating in the Georgian market also fully recovered by the end of IATA’s 2021 summer season and almost 95% of operating routes have recovered,” Archuadze states.

“According to our forecasts, the traffic numbers for UAG’s airports should exceed the 2019 figures in 2023.”

Aiding the renaissance of UAG’s airports are the new routes and destinations that have recently been opened (with more planned for 2022). Despite the Covid-19 effect, several new airlines have started operations in the Georgia aviation market.

“Eurowings started direct operations between Tbilisi and Dusseldorf; Bees Airlines started operations from Kiev; FlyArystan began operations on four new routes from Kazakhstan to Kutaisi; Lufthansa opened a new route between Tbilisi and Frankfurt, Air Arabia began an Abu Dhabi–Tbilisi service, while Wizz Air Abu Dhabi just started operations at Kutaisi International Airport” Archuadze reports. “To increase interest, UAG has introduced special 2022 all-inclusive charges (including ground handling fees) for Kutaisi, which are the lowest in the region.”

Unsurprisingly, United Airports of Georgia is negotiating with several airlines and even more new routes than those already announced are expected to commence in the 2022 summer season.

The past decade has seen considerable infrastructure development at UAG’s airports. Archuadze says she is “delighted to emphasise” that such investments mean that Georgia is amongst the fastest growing aviation markets. “We have been pampered with yearly double-digit growth for the last 15 years and, accordingly, the airports had to accommodate demand and rapidly renovate and enlarge infrastructure. Kutaisi, for example, was Europe’s fastest growing airport in 2018 with 52.5 % growth and the second best in 2019 with 42%,” the D-G reports.

The temporary halt caused by the pandemic was used smartly by UAG to develop further. The major project recently was modernising Kutaisi’s passenger terminal. “It’s now six times bigger and fully equipped to address the needs of the evolving, four-season destination region of Imereti. Meanwhile, our concessionaire, TAV, has doubled terminal capacity at Batumi and built a new taxiway at Tbilisi,” Archuadze adds.

Next up for UAG is a new longer runway in Kutaisi and preparation of a new Airport Development Strategy for Georgia with the support of the Asia Development Bank.