Metamorphoses of the Chisinau Airport: From a Civilian Facility into a Military One?

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Cristian RUSSU
The pause in applying for a new concession for Chisinau airport may be due not only to the delayed process of ‘clearing’ it of the past owners’ influence, but also to changes in its profile
Talks on returning the Hungarian low-cost airline Wizz Air to Moldova have caused mixed reactions. On the one hand, we can positively assess the efforts of the “new owner” of the country’s main airport to attract regional and international figures to the airfreight market. On the other hand, there is a feeling of imitation of turbulent activity amidst the worsening situation of our citizens who use air transport. We remember that in mid-March Igor Grosu explicitly hinted that the departure of Wizz Air was nothing more than revenge for the seizure of the airport from the former owner. In general it was a small loss - its competitor Ryanair was about to come to Moldova. Meanwhile, three months after the return of the airport to the state ownership, the number of routes, flights, passenger traffic and carriers is steadily decreasing. The notorious European Political Community Summit is a telling example of the authorities’ true attitude towards the interests of its citizens. The government was then able to ensure that forty European leaders landed in the country at the expense of closing the airport to all the litter. Apparently, it was politically important to show full control over the situation in the country, and besides, it was impossible to allow the high representatives of the EU see banners with Ilan Shor. However, such political motives have long-term economic expenses - the citizens no longer take the reassuring statements about the “regular operation” of the Chisinau airport seriously. The main “success” of the last three months was the closure of Air Moldova’s activity. The company was accused of having links to the former concessionaire and of disloyal competition - the company owed around 900 million lei. Although the debt is owed not to the state but to the former owner, it does not change the attitude of the authorities. Therefore, despite all efforts of the “Air Moldova” management and investors, the state officials represented by the head of Civil Aviation Vasile Saramet and the airport administrator Constantin Vozian directly say that the company will not resume its activity. No one even remembers the employees’ appeal to the president. Troubles has not escaped Fly One. In fact, there are only a few companies left in Chisinau flying “traditional” routes. Thus, Romanian Tarom flies only to Bucharest, Lot Polish Airlines - to Warsaw, Turkish Airlines - to Istanbul, and Austria Airlines - to Vienna. Such is the disappointing outcome of the airfreight sector’s growth 10 years after Moldova signed the EU airspace agreement. Meanwhile, the new administration believes that the airport’s problems are far from resolved. As it turned out, officials had questions to the origins and beneficiaries of the aircraft, infrastructure and passenger service companies. Organizations providing other services (restaurants, parking, taxis, etc.) also fell under suspicion. The airport authorities admitted that they could not immediately ban suspicious firms for fear of its total paralysis. On the other hand, the airport’s new development strategy is precisely to encourage the service sector, the same restaurants, duty-free shops and other facilities, across its vast area of 36 hectares. After all, previously, 90 % of the airport’s revenues came from passenger transport companies. Thus, our citizens should get used not only to the cancellation of international flights, but also to problems with service on the ground. By the way, even now, many people point out difficulties in finding parking places - cars from Ukraine occupy 80% of its territory. However, it is not surprising: unlike Moldovan citizens, owners of these cars can afford a weeklong tour to EU countries with a parking space to rent. Recently the authorities have reported on a promised reduction in airport charges, but it was a fly in the ointment. Although the fee for airport upgrade will drop from €9 to €4.5 as of 1 July, the fare per passenger will increase from €6.2 to €7 for scheduled flights and €8.70 for charter and non-commercial flights. At the same time, the total airport fare per passenger on departure have reduced from €21.12 to just €16.85. Overall, servicing one aircraft, for instance Airbus A320, would decrease by 600 euros. According to Constantin Vozian, this should attract both Ryanair and Wizz Air and possibly other carriers to Chisinau... Nevertheless, it is not certain. At least, the reduction of airport charges was one of the main conditions for the low-cost carriers. It is quite possible that after the cleanup, the airport will be transferred to a new concessionaire. Minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure Lilia Dabija said that various options are reviewed on how to manage the air harbor, including a concession. But there is still no understanding of future prospects - PAS deputies promise to reveal them only by the end of the year. All this can only signal uncertainty both within the ruling party and among external partners. For now, the current administration is prepping public opinion for the active development of cargo rather than passenger traffic. To that end, executives are taking an inventory of airport infrastructure and evaluating the possibility of using it by third-party companies. Meanwhile, with the ongoing war in Ukraine and the West’s ambitious plans to supply it to confront Russia, Chisinau airport can play a crucial role as a logistics hub in the direction of southwestern Ukraine. It stands closest to Odessa. The number of Ukrainian passengers who choose Chisinau direction only confirms this. Here we can again recall the recently stated readiness of our authorities to offer the country’s territories as a kind of a transit hub for Ukraine. From this point of view, the airport may well function in a limited mode to serve the needs of official delegations and regional flights, while its main resource will be used for cargo storage and transportation, as well as to temporarily deploy human resources and administrative bodies. The radar purchased by the Moldovan authorities may also be placed there. Subsequently, following the example of other airports near Ukraine, an air defense complex might be expected. Some will argue that it is more convenient to use the airfield in Marculesti, but this will require the runway and the terminal to be rebuilt. The remoteness from the capital is another argument against this. Under this scenario, there may not be enough space and resources for full-scale activity of any European low-cost airline in Chisinau. One should not forget about high security standards. Otherwise the airport can be only partially used as a transit link for external partners’ needs. In such a case, one of the European low-cost airlines may well locate at the airport, without any fear of ‘geopolitical threats’ in our region. To all appearances, the main partners of Moldova have to decide by the end of this year whether they need Chisinau airport as a logistics hub in a standoff with the Russian Federation. In the meantime, our citizens should get used to the fact that in the near future low-cost air travel options will be available only from the Romanian airport in Iasi, which hosts the two previously mentioned low-cost airlines, Wizz Air and Ryanair.