KYIV – The number of air passengers in Ukraine jumped by 21 percent last year over 2015 levels, nearing 13 million people.
This reverses a two year drop. With new flights and destinations announced and the strong possibility of visa-free access to the EU, the outlook for 2017 is bright. If Ukraine can sustain the same rate of growth this year, it would match its all-time high of over 15 million air passengers, recorded in 2013.
Ukraine’s largest airport, Kyiv Boryspil, and Lviv hit record passenger numbers in 2016. Kyiv Zhylyany and Odesa celebrated topping one million passengers.
Boryspil is Ukraine’s largest hub. In 2016, it racked up 8.6 million passengers, more than twice as many passengers as the total of all of Ukraine’s other airports.
In 2014, air traffic plunged with the loss of two important airports.
When Russia annexed Crimea, Ukraine lost its third busiest airport, Simferopol International. War with Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas resulted in the destruction of Donetsk International Airport, fourth busiest in Ukraine. Only two years earlier, it had been rebuilt, at a cost of $800 million for the 2012 European football championship.
In 2013, Donetsk handled 1.1 million air passengers and Simferopol 1.2 million passengers.
In a second blow to air traffic, in October 2015, Ukraine and Russia banned all flights between the two countries. Previously, Moscow was the most popular international destination for most Ukrainian airports.
Now, Ukraine makes up for that lost Russian traffic with more flights to Western Europe and to two large hubs: Istanbul and Dubai.
Andrew Charlton, Managing Director of Aviation Advocacy, said that Ukraine’s growth is consistent with growth to major destinations around Europe.
“The Ukrainian troubles have probably pent up some demand, which is now being unleashed,” he wrote in an email. “[Stability] depends on there being no further major shocks. But subject to that, I think that history tells us that air transport growth tends to be sustained.”
The most significant growth was at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport, thanks to Ukrainian International Airline’s aggressive expansion of its hub. This strategy is to continue this year. Much of this growth comes from transiting passengers who connect through Boryspil. They account for 52% of UIA’s passenger traffic at the airport.
Even as transit passenger numbers grow, international arrivals to Ukraine, by air and otherwise, are to grow only moderately, according to Arnie van Groesen, Lead Analyst at GlobalData’s Travel & Tourism IC.
“However, looking at international departures we can see massive growth in the coming years,” he emailed, referencing his projections through 2021. “In 2016, 7.4 million Ukrainians took an international trip, while this is expected to grow to 8.9 million in 2021.”
Today, Poland is by far the most popular destination. Outside, the immediate neighborhood, Turkey is the most popular destination for Ukrainians. Looking ahead, the highest growth rate is to be departures to Germany.
The EU is expected to grant Ukrainians visa-free access to the bloc by late spring or early summer. This will boost airline traffic.
Wizz Air, the low cost carrier, is poised to take advantage of visa-free travel with four new flights this summer from Zhulyany to Western Europe: Copenhagen, Nuremberg, Warsaw-Chopin and Kaunas, Lithuania.
Last month, the Infrastructure Ministry confirmed that it is talking with Ryanair about starting flights from Lviv and Zhulyany by autumn of 2017.
Ukraine currently has little low-cost airline service. Charlton said an increase in inexpensive flights is good news for Ukraine.
“Once passengers are introduced to the market, and that is what low costs do, they tend to stay in the market,” he wrote.
Passenger traffic could grow more if Ukraine agrees to an ‘open skies,’ or common aviation area, agreement with the EU. Last week, Olena Zerkal, deputy foreign minister, signaled this is possible in an interview with Europeiska Pravda. Such an agreement would allow EU and Ukrainian carriers to operate in the other’s territory without restrictions.
Today, carriers wanting to enter Ukraine must apply for permission. Removing this step would encourage low-cost carriers to fly here and could increase Ukraine’s air connections with European cities.
For comments and story tips, please email UBJ IT Correspondent Harvey Hinman at this address: email@example.com.
Photo: On Nov. 29, balloons and a ballet dancer greeted Carolina Karpovich, identified as the one millionth passenger last year at Kyiv International Airport (Zhuliany). (Credit: UNIAN/Vladimir Falin)
Inside photo: Passengers crowd baggage claim last fall at Boryspil International Airport. (Photo: UNIAN)