12:45 23.02.2024

We see no possibility of full recovery of Ukraine without functioning airports

17 min read
We see no possibility of full recovery of Ukraine without functioning airports

Exclusive interview with Olivier Jankovec, Director General of Airports Council International Europe (ACI EUROPE), to Interfax-Ukraine

Text: Alyona Mangelo 


Could you tell us more about the association ACI EUROPE and your cooperation with Ukrainian airports?

We are the global confederation representing the airport industry worldwide., ACI has offices in Hong Kong, Panama City, Casablanca, Washington DC, Montreal and Brussels. As ACI EUROPE, we are the voice of European airports, representing 561 airports in 54 countries. We work closely with Ukrainian airports and the airport association of Ukraine. We are a unique centre of expertise, bringing together more than 700 airport industry experts and professionals, who are participating in our committees and forums. We cooperate closely with governments and European institutions. In particular, with the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the SESAR project, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

What is the purpose of your current visit to Ukraine?

We continue to keep in touch with our Ukrainian member airports (ACI) in these difficult times. Our journey to Kyiv took over 24 hours, including 17 hours by train from Warsaw. Ukraine is currently in logistical isolation due to the war with Russia, and the Ukrainian air transport system  plays a crucial and strategic  role for the country. As we constantly promote the economic and social value of air connectivity , we are of course supporting our Ukrainian airport members in finding the way forward to to find solutions as soon as possible to activate safe transport corridors and reopen part of the Ukrainian airspace. Discussing this possible air space reopening along with the financial needs of airports with the Ukrainian government was the purpose of our visit to Ukraine.

Who did you meet with?

I had several meetings with government officials, including Deputy Minister of Finance Oleksandr Kava, representatives of the Ministry of Economy, heads of Ukrainian airports and a delegation from the Ukrainian Airports Association. A separate visit was made to Boryspil International Airport, where I had the opportunity to discuss in detail with Oleksiy Dubrevskyy (Airport CEO) and the other Ukrainian airports further joint steps towards the possible resumption of operations and to see with my own eyes the state of the airport - its terminals, baggage claim and check-in areas, passenger waiting and boarding areas, control points, aprons, other infrastructure and equipment. We also met with the management of Kyiv Sikorsky Airport, where we were able to inspect its condition in detail.

What did you discuss with representatives of the Ukrainian government?

The main message I wanted to convey is that Ukrainian airports are strategic assets of the state and essential for maintaining and develop the economy of the country. As long as there is a war, it is crucial to maintain the operational readiness of airports: to retain qualified personnel, ensure all equipment and facilities are maintained. Until now, the Ukrainian airports have been self-sufficient in this regard, but now their financial resources are exhausted. The government should now think about how to support them financially, as airports are an important part of Ukraine's economic recovery.

The key point for us is that every 10% increase in direct air connectivity converts into a 0.5% increase in GDP per capita. In Ukraine, the economic effect of air traffic in 2019 was $10.4 billion or 7% of GDP. The industry supported almost 1.2 million jobs.

Three important elements underpin the understanding of the critical importance of airports and the preservation of the aviation industry in Ukraine. The first is Ukraine's geographical location at the crossroads between Europe, which has a fairly mature aviation market, and the Middle East and Asia, where the aviation market is developing rapidly. Secondly, among European countries, Ukraine is a country with a large population (43.7 million people), which means it is a large aviation market by nature. Despite this, the propensity to fly per capita in Ukraine is 6-7 times lower than the EU average. Therefore, we consider the Ukrainian market to be an immature aviation market with phenomenal potential for growth. I think it's one of the most promising markets in terms of the potential for aviation development after the war – and that really means that aviation and airports are crucial for the economy

If we look at the situation before the pandemic and COVID quarantine measures, we see that Ukrainian airports were ahead of European ones in terms of development. Between 2011 and 2019, passenger traffic at Ukrainian airports doubled, while European airports grew by 38% on average. After the pandemic, they also recovered faster - in 2021, passenger traffic at Ukrainian airports was only 33% lower than before the pandemic in 2019, while the average figure at European airports was 64% lower.

Speaking about the future of Ukrainian aviation, we should consider the important factor that about 6 million refugees who fled the war will want to return home or visit their loved ones in Ukraine. According to our estimates, the new Ukrainian diaspora will generate powerful VFR traffic (Visiting Friends and Relatives), which will include at least 12 million people. Without the help of aviation, rail transport will not be able to cope with this traffic. Not all people will want to spend 17-20 hours on a train if there is an alternative to get there much faster by plane.

Another element that makes aviation strategic for Ukraine's future is the EU membership process. Ukraine's economy will integrate with the EU. New trade ties will emerge, and this will create new economic needs and activities that aviation will be required to support.

And, of course, there is also an agenda for Ukraine to restore the country's cohesion in terms of territorial equality.  Aviation has an important role to play here as well.

Last but not least, the restart of tourism. So, when you look at all of this, you will realise that obviously airports will play an extremely important role today and tomorrow. And this brings me to the point that we see no possibility of Ukraine's recovery without fully functioning airports.

So what does Ukraine need to do now? Make sure that it maintains and supports  the airports that were not affected by the Russian attacks. Because if we don't do this now, it will take more money and time to get them back to work. I emphasise that the money spent now to keep the airports operational is much less than the money that will be spent in the future to bring them back to life. The key message from ACI EUROPE to the Ukrainian government, which I have been delivering during the meetings, is that you must protect Ukrainian airports and secure their future. Because they are strategic assets.

In an interview with The Times, Yulia Svyrydenko, First Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Economy of Ukraine, said that the development of logistics and transport infrastructure will continue to be a key element of cooperation between Ukraine and the United States. However, we are concerned, and I have also conveyed this message, that we see this principle being applied mainly to shipping, to roads, to railways, but not to aviation and airports. We feel that aviation is a bit neglected by the government. And this, we believe, jeopardises the future of the Ukrainian economy. After the war, Ukraine will have new conditions, and new market realities, in which aviation will become more important than ever.

What are your impressions of visiting Boryspil International Airport and Kyiv International Airport?

I was very impressed with what I saw: the dedication of all airport staff, and the way they take care of the equipment is extraordinary. Thanks to these efforts, the operational readiness of both airports is at the highest level - they maintain their facilities and equipment properly, and retain a large part of their staff. Until now, the airports have maintained their facilities and staff at the expense of reserves, the money they had before. But now this money has run out, so the government needs to intervene. Ukrainian airports are covered by the €50 billion EU-Ukraine Plan, and the loss and subsequent preparation for operational readiness of Ukrainian airports will cost Ukraine much more than their support during the war, and will affect the country's ability to fully recover.

Do the representatives of the Ukrainian government you have spoken to understand this?

I think so. I hope so. We have calculated that the cost of maintaining the operational readiness of airports in Ukraine is about EUR 52 million per year. In December, Boryspil Airport received about EUR 1.5 million from the budget, which was enough to pay staff salaries and taxes for that month. This is a very small amount of money. They need much more to keep paying their staff and also maintain infrastructure and equipmentUkraine is set to  receive EU support in the amount of EUR 50 billion until 2027, through the so-called EU Ukraine Facility. The EU has no objection to part of this money being spent on airports, but the final decision will be made by the Ukrainian government. It is the government that will decide what needs to be addressed with these funds. I am well aware that the number one priority in Ukraine right now is military needs. There is no doubt about it. However, it is important that part of this EUR 50 billion goes to support Ukrainian airports, because this is strategically important critical infrastructure. And we cannot forget about the airports that have been damaged, in particular, the airports in Kharkiv and Zaporizhia. We need to start planning now on how to bring these airports back to life.

Does ACI plan to create a support fund for Ukrainian airports similar to the European Voluntary Air Navigation Solidarity Fund from the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (EUROCONTROL)?

I wish we had the money to do that. I mean, ACI is not a government organisation, we don't have access to government or public funding. We get our funding from what airport members pay for membership in our association, and it's not a lot of money. We are a non-profit organisation, so we are not able to make a profit that we could then distribute for such purposes. Unlike us, Eurocontrol is a public organisation that can rely on public funding from States and they have access to such financing. They have created a European Voluntary Air Navigation Solidarity Fund for Ukraine. We don't have this opportunity. We have asked Eurocontrol to consider extending this fund to Ukrainian airports. But the response so far has not been positive. They insist that they should only support air navigation service providers. And this is somewhat surprising, because despite a functioning air navigation system, it will not be possible to resume flights without airports.

What support has ACI EUROPE been providing to Ukrainian airports since the start of the full-scale invasion?

From the very beginning, when the full-scale war started, we have been in very close contact with our Ukrainian members. The first thing we did was to offer free membership to them, because we understand the difficult conditions they are facing. We also organised a fundraising campaign, asking other airports to allocate funds to support Ukraine - we worked in this direction with the non-profit organisation Airlink. It provides assistance to people affected by the war in Ukraine. This organisation provides free transport for crisis responders, NGOs and humanitarian cargo. So, the money we raised went to Airlink to help Ukraine. And it was one of the most successful fundraising campaigns for Airlink - we raised almost EUR 500 thousand.

We provide some free training for Ukrainian airport staff through our global training centre. And we have initiated very close cooperation with EU institutions and financial institutions, such as the World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to inform them about the situation with Ukrainian airports and to make sure that they are included in the EU-Ukraine plan and the relevant programmes.

Rostyslav Shurma, Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said at a panel discussion at Ukraine House Davos that Ukraine is making significant efforts to restore flights from Kyiv and Lviv.  However, the share of Ukraine's work in this matter is no more than 20% - the possibility of resuming flights depends on the decisions of international partners, independent regulators, and insurance companies. Have you discussed the prospects of reopening the airspace with the Ukrainian government and is it on the agenda?

Yes, we discussed how we could open some of the airspace to resume air traffic. This is crucial not only for the airports but for Ukraine as a whole to end the isolation. It would send a powerful political signal. There are certain procedures for working in conflict zones. They are under the control of organisations such as ICAO and EASA.

We need to make progress in this direction and make it happen.

Is ACI working with EASA on this issue?

We keep in touch with EASA and discuss this issue with them. However, at this stage the ball is primarily in Ukraine's court. The Ukrainian government has to complete a safety analysis and on that basis prepare and approve a document - NOTAM (Notice to Airman - a message submitted to the aviation authorities to warn aircraft pilots of potential hazards on the flight route or in a place that may affect the flight. It may contain information about the establishment, condition or change of any aviation facility, service, procedure or hazard, the timely knowledge of which is important for flight personnel). The State Aviation Administration of Ukraine is working on this . After that, EASA will make a recommendation to European airlines that it is safe to fly within the designated air corridors in Ukraine. It is very important to create safe air corridors, and I have spoken about this in meetings with government representatives. Creating safe air corridors is key. I am aware that the State Aviation Administration of Ukraine (SAAU) is already preparing a safety case.

In your opinion, is it realistic that the first flights in Ukraine will start by the end of 2024?

I would hope so.. Despite the military risks, Ukraine does not stop trains, and they are very slow, unlike planes. However, for some reason, everyone has decided that aviation is more dangerous.. Moreover, there are technologies to make flights safe even in the current environment.. We need to resolve the issue with insurance companies. These issues have been looked at  over the past months, and I really hope we can make progress.

Do you allow for a scenario where EASA supports flights from only one airport in Ukraine, while restrictions remain in place for the rest?

I can't answer this question because that will depend on the safety case, and we do not have access to the relevant information in this regard. The Ukrainian government will decide what part of the airspace is to be re-opened.

Many say that the first airport to resume flights will be Lviv, as it is located in western Ukraine, where it is safer...

I don't have all the ingredients to make that judgement. This is definitely not a question for ACI EUROPE. The decision should be made by the competent authorities in Ukraine, with the support of EASA.

Eurocontrol gave a disappointing forecast - according to their estimates, restrictions on flights from Ukraine will remain in place until 2030. What do you think about this?

It is difficult to predict when the war in Ukraine will finally end. I think that in preparing this forecast, Eurocontrol relied on the basic, current situation. However, in my opinion, this is a very conservative scenario that has a good potential to be adjusted upwards as soon as there is confidence that either the conflict will end or part of the airspace will be opened despite the ongoing conflict. I think that Eurocontrol's forecast reflects the current situation - the status quo. It cannot be taken as dogma, because as soon as circumstances change, it will be changed.

At the annual ACI EUROPE/ACI WORLD conference in Barcelona in June 2023, you said that European airports are facing two major challenges: decarbonisation and the need to reset the airport business model to "build resilience" and cope with the economic and operational realities of the European aviation market. In your opinion, are these issues relevant for Ukrainian airports in the event of a resumption of flights, given the major negative impact of the war on their ability to remain competitive? 

Given the great negative impact of the war... These issues are hardly relevant for Ukrainian airports right now. The primary task for them now is to stay afloat, to keep their infrastructure, facilities, qualified personnel, and readiness to restart services as soon as possible. As soon as Ukrainian airports overcome the immediate challenges and are able to partially or fully resume operations, it will be possible to move on to issues such as reducing their carbon footprint and changing their business model. Today, this cannot be a priority in Ukraine.

Could you describe the impact of the war in Ukraine on air travel in Europe and how the European aviation market will change if flights from Ukraine resume?

The European aviation market is very large, so the impact of the war in Ukraine on overall traffic figures was not so significant, but some markets were affected. In 2023, almost all European airports recovered to pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Passenger traffic in 2023 was only 6% lower than in 2019. However, the gap in performance by country is huge. Finland is still minus 30% to pre-pandemic levels. They are a hub between Europe and Asia and rely on routes over Siberia. However, Russian airspace is now closed to European airlines and this has threatened the business model for Finland. Slovakia has also historically had a lot of traffic from Russia. So have some airports in Bulgaria. Thus, we can see that in the current environment, airports in some countries have, on the contrary, received a strong additional boost, while others have lost traffic.

At the beginning of our conversation, you said that you last visited Ukraine eight years ago and probably also visited the largest airports in Kyiv. What are the biggest changes and transformations that have taken place since then?

The main change is that the airports are empty... However, I was incredibly impressed by the enthusiasm of the management and employees, and their dedication to protecting the infrastructure and maintaining it in good condition. And this is yet another proof of the resilience of Ukrainians, which is very impressive. The equipment and infrastructure at both Kyiv airports are in excellent condition - the terminals are intact and ready to resume operations. It is very inspiring that everyone is looking to the future. I spoke to Boryspil Airport CEO Oleksiy Dubrevskyy about the airport's future development and modernisation plans.

Based on an assessment of the current state of Boryspil and Kyiv airports, how quickly are they ready to resume operations if a decision is made to resume flights?

As soon as the aviation safety assessment allows, the airports could be ready to receive charter flights within a matter of days after the decision to resume flights is made. It should take a month to be ready for scheduled flights, as scheduling and planning issues with other airports will need to be resolved. However, in order for this to continue and for the airports to maintain such a high level of readiness to resume flights, the issue of their financing must be resolved immediately.

What are your personal impressions of visiting Kyiv in the second year after the full-scale invasion?

I will definitely remember this trip for the rest of my life. I am very happy to have made it and have a lot to share with our team in Brussels, our stakeholders, and the European institutions. I was impressed by the fact that life in Kyiv continues as usual. Despite the air raid alert, people continue to live, work and develop. And this is the strongest example of the resilience of the whole country, a signal of the strength of the Ukrainian spirit that you send to the whole world.