KYIV – With Ukraine expected to win visa-free access to the Schengen zone this summer. Ukraine’s little-used regional airports are inaugurating new flights to catch some of the international action.
From Dnipro to Khmelnytskyi to Odesa, airports across Europe’s largest nation are modernizing aging terminals and starting unlikely city pairings. Chernivtsi, Kryvyi Rih and Zaporizhya now have direct international flights.
“Visas matter.” says Andrew Charlton, managing director at Aviation Advocacy, a Swiss-based consulting firm. “Generally speaking, when countries go visa-free, traffic goes up”.
Andrew Charlton, managing director at Aviation Advocacy, a consultancy based near Geneva, predicts visa-free travel to Europe will boost Ukraine’s air links to Europe. (supplied)
Charlton cautions that airports with less than one million passengers a year are unlikely to be profitable.
“That’s a golden rule -- ironclad,” he says.
In Ukraine, four airports are to be in the million passenger group this year: Kyiv’s Boryspil, Kyiv’s Zhuliany, Odesa and Lviv. Kharkiv, which now has regular flights to Kutaisi, Minsk, Tel Aviv, Tbilisi, and Warsaw, could join the one million passenger club in 2018.
For an airport, foreign routes can be more profitable than domestic.
Regional airports earn little money by serving as feeders for Ukrainian International Airlines’ Boryspil hub. Last year, for the first time since 2013, UIA posted a profit. In 2016, UIA’s revenues increased by 20 percent, allowing it to post a net profit of $14.3 million.
Unique links make international flights profitable.
Because of a general ban on flights to Russia, each of Ukraine’s top five airports now have direct flights to Minsk, a stop over airport for flights to Russia. With Russia restricting guest workers from Ukraine, Ukraine’s top five airports now have daily flights to Warsaw. Business travel, roots and religious tourism fill direct flights from Ukraine’s top five cities to Tel Aviv.
In March, Kyiv and Lviv drew attention with the announcement that Ryanair will start flying this fall from Ukraine to nine EU cities.
But quietly, smaller, regional airports have inaugurated unexpected city pairings.
Last year, Kharkiv Airport saw a 61% jump in passengers from 2015. During the first quarter of this year, traffic is up by about 50 percent over the same time last year. The airport offers regular or seasonal flights to 17 international destinations, including new Bravo Airways flights to Burgas, Bulgaria and Monastir, Tunisia. Bravo also added flights to Kyiv, Lviv, and Kryviy Rih.
Roughly 72% of passenger traffic to Kharkiv in 2017 is from international routes. UIA’s twice a day, one hour hops between Kharkiv and Boryspil have to compete with a 4-hour downtown-to-downtown train ride. Rail tickets cost a fraction of air.
Regional airports handling fewer than 100,000 passengers target vacations resorts to serve travelers from their regional catch basins. Airports concentrate on sunshine destinations, like Egypt, Spain and Turkey. Ukraine and Turkey now no longer require passports for travelers from the other country.
Western Ukrainian cities look towards Western Europe. Ivano-Frankivsk offers direct flights to Alicante, Valencia and Venice. Chernivtsi offering a seasonal flight to Bergamo, Italy.
Kherson offers daily direct flights across the Black Sea to Istanbul and seasonal flights to Antalya, Turkey and Hurghada, Egypt. Also in Kherson Region, Zaporizhia starts direct flights next month to Batumi, Georgia’s Black Sea resort and casino city.
Reflecting regional Ukrainians’ increased willingness to spend on vacations, Kryvyi Rih International Airport rose from the dead last year. Now, it offers direct flights to beach resorts in Bulgaria, Egypt and Turkey. Last year, it was Ukraine’s second-fastest growing airport, with traffic jumping sixfold. Traffic at Chernivtsi led the list, increasing 10 times over 2015 numbers.
Central Ukraine’s Vinnytsia Airport started regular direct UIA flights last year to Warsaw and Tel Aviv. Vinnytsia is the nearest airport to Rebbe Nachman’s grave in Uman, a pilgrimage site for Hasidic Jews.
Also in central Ukraine, Khmelnytskyi Airport, currently without air service, is a candidate for $1.9 million in investment, Yuriy Lavreniuk, deputy minister of Infrastructure, announced in April.
“Sometimes a region is discovered as a particular tourist destination in a certain region”, said Charlton. “There could be very strong friends and marketing interests.”
With more and more Ukrainians working and living in Europe, he said: “Ukraine could be similar to Turkey, with communities across Europe."
With a wavy roof, Odesa’s new passenger terminal opened in mid-April, five years after ground was broken. Mikheil Saakashvili, governor of Odesa Region until November 2016, charged delays were caused by corruption. Airport officials referred questions about the new terminal to the airport website which reports: “On the ground floor will be located check in area, passengers’ baggage break-down area, two luggage pick up areas, as well as customs and border control for arrived passengers...The new terminal of Odessa International Airport will be the perfect start point for successful business development and long termed cooperation.”
In mid-April, Odesa’s airport opened up a new 26,000 square meter passenger terminal that can handle up to three million passengers a year. Last year, airport traffic grew 9 percent, hitting one million passengers. This week, Belavia doubled to twice a day its flights between Odesa and Minsk. Odesa now has regular, direct flights to 12 foreign cities.
Of Ukraine’s 12 busiest airports, only Dnipro saw a decrease in passenger traffic last year. Larger airports, like Boryspil and Lviv, saw increases of 18.8% and 29.4% respectively.
Based on first quarter figures, more Ukrainians are flying this year. This trend prompts several airports to improve facilities.
“Aviation has been a good way for countries to develop,” said Charlton. “Airports generate a certain amount of employment.
Dnipro’s City Council wants a new terminal at Dnipro International Airport, which is currently owned by Dniproavia. Protectionist measures by this home city carrier have kept foreign carriers out and depressed traffic to half their Soviet peak level of 660,000 in 1990.
In Rivne, western Ukraine, authorities are studying reopening their now unused airport as a cargo airport for the growing number of Polish companies producing their. The airport has a 8,600 meter concrete air strip, a legacy of the days when it was a Soviet Air Force base.
“Investing in aviation infrastructure is usually a good investment,” says Charlton. To avoid “white elephants,” he cautions that investment should be based on passenger levels, not political interests.
UBJ Editor in Chief contributed to this story
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Slider photo: At Odesa’s new passenger terminal, five years in the making, arriving passengers check for their bags at baggage claim (supplied)