Kutaisi, Georgia’s historic “second city”, may become host to Georgia’s newest airport and, with it, a major economic opportunity. Guest contributor and longtime Georgia-watcher Laura Linderman gives the details.
By Laura Linderman
It is no secret that Georgia has embarked on a series of new building projects, from the planned “new large city” on the Black Sea, north of Poti, to the “giant squiggle” border crossing in Sarpi that will welcome folks entering Georgia from Turkey. Some of the projects are not without their share of controversy. Old Tbilisi and Gudiashvili’s Square renovations have prompted concerns about the scope and ultimate goals of the projects.
One of the new construction projects deserves a closer look. On November 22, 2011, construction officially began on Kutaisi’s new Kopitnari International Airport as President Saakashvili heaped the first shovelfuls of dirt on the foundation. The Georgian government hopes that the airport, which is expected to open in September 2012, will help to rehabilitate Georgia’s second largest city. The airport will serve the growing number of tourists who demand easier access to the country’s west. Passenger traffic between the EU and Georgia has increased by an average of 10% per year over the past five years. Two nearby UNESCO heritage sites, Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery, are popular tourist destinations and no doubt future travelers will want easy access to the “new large city.”
The airport project should also dovetail nicely with the movement of the Georgian parliament from Tbilisi to Kutaisi in 2012. The government hopes that this move, though controversial,  will decentralize the government and bring parliament closer to Georgians. The new airport in Kutaisi will allow diplomats and politicians easier access to the city and facilitate travel between different regions of the country.
Finally, the government hopes that the new airport will help to address the growing demand for more cost effective flights into and out of Georgia. Readers may wonder why the flights in and out of Georgia, in both Tbilisi and Batumi international airports are so expensive. The high fares are a result of the high fees charged by the airport operator, TAV Airports Holding, to the airlines that use the airports. The airlines pass these fees on to passengers in the form of higher ticket prices. TAV justifies the high fees by claiming that they have invested heavily in Georgian airport infrastructure, though they have not managed to maintain the runways at the airports they run.
The government’s work on the Kutaisi airport is a means of attracting competition in airport management companies within Georgia, hopefully bringing down the price of tickets not just in and out of Kutaisi, but in Tbilisi and Batumi ask well. Talks with budget airlines, such as Ryan Air, look promising. Saakashvili has said that attracting high-quality, low-cost air carriers to the new airport is one of the government’s top priorities. He has promised flights to and from Munich, London, Istanbul and Shanghai.
Georgia’s liberal aviation safety standards provide a major barrier to the implementation of these plans. Georgia has been a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization since 1994, but only became a member of the Europe Civil Aviation Conference in 2005. Collaboration with this organization and other European aviation organizations is key to implementing needed reforms to aviation safety that will allay any concerns airlines might have about flying in to and out of Georgia. In September 2011, Georgian officials from the Georgian Civil Aviation Agency participated in the Europe Civil Aviation Conference. Officials there, “expressed their satisfaction about the recent reforms implemented in Georgia” while encouraging the Aviation Agency to continue making changes.
The Dutch Firm UNStudio unveiled their designs for the environmentally-friendly Kutaisi airport in December 2011. UNStudio describes the design as incorporating both Georgia’s historic landscape and its architectural traditions. The open entrance to the airport with massive transparent walls that project arrival and departure information is meant to reflect the entrance lobbies that are used as showcases in private Georgian houses. The entrance is also meant to reflect Georgia’s location on an important land bridge, with a long history of welcoming travellers.
“It was particularly exciting for me to be able to design an airport which is not only linked to the new seat of parliament in Kutaisi, but which also creates an entrance condition which functions as a port for the international community,” explained Ben van Berkel, the designer and founder of UNStudio. “The airport presents a symbolic infrastructural gateway to Georgia and, from there, to the rest of the world.”
In addition to the open entrance, the terminal design includes a departure lounge, indoor and outdoor gardens, three departure gates, car rental facilities, retail stores, an arrival area with a customs hall, offices for border police and staff and rooms for the press. The Air Traffic Control tower is 55 meters high and made of transparent material that changes color with fluctuations in air traffic. Van Berkel noted that the tower was designed to be both a light beacon for airplanes as well as for folks traveling to and from the airport on the ground.
The design’s green features include using a natural underground water source to maintain the interior temperature of the airport and strict regulation of waste. This last measure is meant to encourage recycling not only at the airport, but in the city beyond.
It is perhaps surprising that the Georgian government chose such a futuristic, cutting edge studio to design the airport, especially since Georgia is so deeply engaged with its past. The reason for the choice is, unsurprisingly, political. Saakashvili, whose wife is Dutch, explained when the designs were unveiled: “I’m hoping that the airport will be a landmark for Dutch investment, too, the Netherlands being one of the biggest investors in the country.”
With much of the construction yet to be started, lots of aviation regulations to deal with and plenty of air carriers left to woo, it is not yet time to get congratulatory about the airport. We must admit, however, that so far the project seems both promising and exciting, so, let’s drink to the success of Georgia’s third international airport. kutasis aeroportis gaumarjos!
Laura Linderman has an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology and Russian and East European Studies from Indiana University. She has more than 5 years experience working and researching in Georgia. She can be reached at ljlinderman [at] gmail [dot] com.
 The government plans to use e-government capabilities to facilitate communication between Kutaisi and Tbilisi. However the state of Internet service in the country makes the viability of this plan questionable for the short term. Furthermore, a National Democratic Institute poll found that only 8 percent of Georgians thought the measure would bring parliament closer to Georgians, and 30 percent thought it was a waste of money.