YEREVAN—Armenia’s international airports have registered sustained growth in traffic this year. Armenia’s Head of Civil Aviation Tatevik Revazian reports a 9.4 percent increase in the total number of passengers processed at the two airports so far this year.
According to the Civil Aviation Committee, the number of processed passengers grew by a total of 12 percent the previous year. The increasing volume of air traffic into Armenia has been following a steady upward trend since 2013.
That year, Armenia’s only national carrier, the privately-owned airline Armavia, declared bankruptcy, prompting authorities to sign and ratify the European Open Skies Agreement. The decision had an almost immediate effect on the country’s areal traffic. By the following year, flights into Armenia’s main international airport, Zvartnots, had jumped by a quarter, while average ticket prices fell by the same amount.
While the Open Skies Agreement has certainly encouraged the growth of flights to and from Armenia, other factors explain this year’s spike in traffic. The numbers also coincide with a 10 percent growth in tourism this year, according to the Armenian Tourism Board. A number of aircraft operators have announced a notable increase in flights between Armenia and various cities in Russia last month.
This comes in the wake of Moscow’s abrupt ban on any flights from Russia to neighboring Georgia. The Georgian capital Tbilisi has been rocked by almost nightly protests over the past month. Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov’s opening remarks at the session of the Inter-parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy from the chair of the Georgian parliamentary speaker caused widespread indignation among Georgians late last month. Policymakers in Moscow used the protests as a pretext to stall any and all direct flights from Russia to Georgia right at the beginning of the country’s tourist season.
Despite ongoing tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi originating from the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia has become a top destination for Russian tourists. At least 1.5 million Russians had already visited the country this year before the ban came into force. While some have cancelled vacation plans, others have been looking for alternative transportation.
Within days of the ban’s announcement, Russia’s flag carrier, Aeroflot, as well as two private Russian operators, Ural Airlines and S7 Airlines, announced plans to increase the number of regular connections to Armenia. The budget airline Pobeda, which until recently has been operating only regular flights into Armenia’s second international airport at Gyumri, has apparently been negotiating with the Russian-owned Armenian Rail-network to coordinate passenger transfers to Tbilisi by train. Other airlines have also organized bus transfers to the Georgian capital as well as resorts on the Black Sea coast. While these options do circumvent the ban on direct flights, they do so at the expense of convenience for the Russian travelers.
Armenia’s newest flag carrier Armenia Air Company has positioned itself as the best alternative for Russians on holiday going to Georgia, as well as Georgians trying to visit Russia. The airline, which is partially owned by the Georgian flag carrier Georgian Airways, has dramatically increased the frequency of its connections to Russia’s largest aerial hubs—Moscow’s Domodedevo and Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo. According to a spokesperson from the airline, they now offer up to 14 flights per day to Moscow alone. The airline has also increased the frequency of service to Ekaterinburg.
These new flights will be coordinated with the airline’s other main destination, Tbilisi, which will also gain an additional daily flight from Yerevan.
Revazian also announced an imminent agreement between the Armenian Civil Aviation Committee and major European low-cost airlines Ryanair and WizzAir. During a press conference on Monday, she said her office was already drafting documents which would exempt the two airlines from the 21 dollar tax on individual passenger tickets landing in Armenia.
Speculation over a potential entry into the Armenian aviation market by European low cost operators has existed for months. Revazian had previously announced her intention to invite them when she took over the Civil Aviation Committee over a year ago.
Budget airlines offer significantly lower ticket prices to travelers than legacy airlines because of so-called ‘no frills’ policies. In order to save on operating costs, budget airlines use a number of tactics. They put in large (and thus discounted) bulk orders for a single type of manufacturer. Such aircraft are typically more efficient and only require mechanics, pilots and crew to qualify for a single aircraft type. They also hire non-unionized, newly-trained staff and reuse aircraft on multiple routes a day. Budget airlines also typically fly in and out of secondary airports, which offer cheaper landing fees and less ground time.
While traditional airlines must factor in pre-existing demand and business class tickets before opening a new route, budget airlines have fewer restrictions. In many cases, budget airlines can create their own demand for a particular destination simply by launching a route there, just because it’s cheap. This factor also gives budget airlines a lot of negotiating power vis-à-vis smaller airports.
Ryanair, for instance, is notorious for its bargaining practices. The airline has been known to use its influence to strong-arm airports into getting very low landing and baggage handling fees, and even securing government assistance in promotional campaigns.
Despite these concerns, the ‘Ryanair effect‘ has been shown to significantly boost tourism at every new destination the airline flies to. “If Ryanair does enter the Armenian market, I’m sure that air ticket prices will fall and passenger traffic from Europe to Armenia and also from Armenia to Europe will increase as a result,” said Revazian in an earlier interview with Radio Free Europe.