The Georgian authorities are pondering building a new airport near the capital city, citing long-term prospects of the country becoming an "aviation hub" in the region.
Government leaders made the announcement in early June, saying they would either build a new airport in place of the Vaziani military airfield near Tbilisi or expand the capital's existing international airport.
It's the latest in a series of moves aimed at elevating Georgia's role in transportation and cargo traffic between various parts of the world.
"Today we have the capacity, experience, and, most importantly, the goal of effectively becoming an aviation hub in the region," Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said at a government meeting on June 5. "We are talking about building a modern, new airport of international class."
The authorities said studies are underway to determine the best option between building a new airport or expanding the currently operational international airport in Tbilisi.
But they've already expressed their preference for the former. They argue that while the current airport meets present demands, it has limited growth capacities and a new airport in another location would be necessary in terms of "20-30-50 or even 100-year prospects."
Georgia is currently home to three international airports, with Tbilisi airport, some 20-30 minutes drive from the city center, being the largest. A smaller airport near Kutaisi, in western Georgia, has been gaining popularity in recent years by hosting budget airlines such as Wizzair and offering cheap flights to Europe. The third international airport near Batumi, a city on the Black Sea, also accepts international flights but is less busy than the other two.
The contract with TAV prohibits the country from building an airport within a 150 km radius of the current one without the company's consent. The contract expires in 2027, and the authorities claim they remain loyal to the agreement. According to the government's projections, if the decision to build a new airport is made, construction will commence next year and finish in 3-4 years.
It is unclear whether the current contract will be amended or if authorities will wait until it expires.
Since early May, Georgian officials have been offering various arguments in support of a separate, bigger airport, with some citing ever-growing passenger flow and others pointing at the need to boost the country's air cargo handling capacity.
"If we are saying that Georgia must be a regional hub in terms of logistics and talk about transit flights, including cargo operations, for this we need space for expansion and a large economy," Economy Minister Levan Davitashvili told reporters after June 5 government meeting.
Building an airport at the new location in Vaziani would double the distance and thus drive time from the city center.
But Davitashvili argued that it offers better conditions for navigation and is better in terms of urban and economic development. The minister also did not rule out revamping the old military aerodrome along with building a new civil airport, citing similar combined arrangements elsewhere.
The prospects of Georgia becoming a regional aviation hub have been discussed in various circles for several years. But these particular plans come as Georgia has been reinventing itself as a major transit corridor between the East and the West as a result of geopolitical shifts resulting from the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
While passenger flow in Georgian airports has been growing in recent years, in Tbilisi it has yet to catch up with pre-pandemic numbers. Air cargo traffic, on the other hand, has seen steadier growth.
It is, however, yet to be seen how the recent controversial resumption of direct flights with Russia will affect Georgian aviation.
After Moscow's decision in May to lift its 4-year unilateral ban on air travel with Georgia, Tbilisi authorized three airlines for regular flights to Russia - flag carrier Georgian Airways, and two Russian flyers, Azimuth and Red Wings. The latter's planes are yet to land in Tbilisi and Kutaisi, after postponing the start of operation to mid-June.
With the authorization came talk, from both Russian and Georgian business representatives, about using Georgian airports for transit between Russia and the EU countries that closed their airspace to Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine last year. It was theorized that Georgia - and in particular Kutaisi - could eventually compete with major regional transit hubs like Istanbul.
However, Georgian Airways later said that the country would need at least five years to acquire this role. Experts, too, were skeptical that the many sanctions and restrictions Russia and its citizens are currently facing could ever make this possible.
And late in May, Tamaz Gaiashvili, head of the Georgian flag carrier, said that against general expectations, bookings on Georgia-Russia flights so far did not amount even to half of the available seating capacity.
By Nini Gabritchidze via Eurasianet.org
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