Behind the scenes as Sochi Airport warms up for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games

15 January 2014 (Last Updated January 15th, 2014 04:00)

Sochi International Airport has undergone a seven-year revitalisation programme in preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. Julian Turner gets the inside track from Basel Aero chief executive Leonid Sergeev about how the airport plans to utilise advanced check-in and passenger services technologies, and improve accessibility for Paralympians.

Behind the scenes as Sochi Airport warms up for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games

Leonid Sergeev is CEO of Basel Aero, the operator of Sochi International Airport, the main gateway for the upcoming Winter Olympic Games. Prior to joining Russia’s largest industrial diversified group, Basic Element, in 2008, he headed the strategic projects department of United Company RUSAL, the world’s largest aluminium company, and was director of strategic projects at En + Group.

Julian Turner: Please provide a brief overview of Sochi International Airport.

Leonid Sergeev: Sochi International Airport was opened in 1945 and this 65,000m² gateway now ranks among the top ten largest airports in the country and the first in Russia’s new era to host the Olympic Games.

In 2007, when Russia won the bid to host the 2014 Games in Sochi, Basel Aero began transforming the Soviet-style airport into a modern facility and the newly-built terminal opened its doors in 2010.

"Like the atomic industry, aviation is one of the most strictly regulated sectors in Russia because of security issues."

Sochi International Airport now serves 40 air carriers and its destination map includes 60 domestic and international flights. The gateway served over 2.4 million passengers and processed in excess of 3,400 tons of cargo in 2013. Annual passenger traffic is expected to hit four million by 2019 and cargo traffic to increase by 50%.

JT: What measures has Sochi airport put in place to deal with increased passenger and aviation traffic during the Winter Olympic Games?

LS: Due to the slots distribution, we have evenly spread out the flights so that traffic during peak hours should be no higher than during summer tourist season.

During the Winter Olympic Games we will open three sectors in order to optimise passenger flow and almost double the airport staff. Sector A will serve Aeroflot and S7 airlines, while sectors B and C will be dedicated to other domestic carriers and international airlines. Entrances and exits from the airport building will be separated, and public transport stops and a taxi parking area will be positioned in front of the airport.

Like the other Olympic host cities, Sochi International Airport has established a specially designed temporary Games terminal adjacent to the main airport building. This 2,600m² facility has a handling capacity of 420 passengers an hour, and will serve athletes and organised fan groups.

In case of adverse weather conditions, we have reserve airports in Krasnodar and Anapa, around 300 miles from Sochi, which will be ready to serve aircraft bound for the Olympics.

JT: Please describe the technological and operational innovations that Sochi airport has implemented in order to successfully manage security and passenger services during the Games.

LS: Basel Aero has collaborated with Electronika, a leading Russian developer of integrated security systems. In July 2013, a system was installed that allows Sochi airport staff to monitor security conditions 24/7, proactively identify suspicious situations and react in a timely manner.

"Basel Aero has invested $1 million to introduce permanent accessibility improvements for passengers with reduced mobility and other disabilities."

We have also optimised passenger check-in times and it now only takes 45 seconds to process an economy-class guest. Check-in waiting times do not exceed 15 minutes and we closely monitor daily operations to ensure that this commitment is adhered to in 95% of cases.

One of the biggest concerns that visitors to the Games have expressed relates to luggage handling. We’ve tested various technologies and eventually achieved the fastest possible results – for 93% of flights, the first luggage spot is claimed within 15 minutes and the last one in 25 minutes.

In addition, Sochi International Airport now boasts ten self-check-in terminals and mobile check-in desks where passengers can print out boarding passes using smartphones. These solutions are specifically designed to minimise congestion at ordinary check-in counters during peak times.

A 1,000-strong core team and an additional 807 outsourced staff will join Basel Aero during the Games, and we have a strict training and testing procedures in place for passenger and ground handling operational personnel.

JT: How does Sochi Airport intend to improve access for athletes during the Paralympic Games?

LS: Basel Aero has invested a total of $1 million to introduce permanent accessibility improvements for passengers with reduced mobility and other disabilities.

As part of the navigation package for the blind, the airport is equipped with tactile footpaths. Three mnemonic schemes feature Braille letters, and are installed near the entrance and inside the airport terminal, allowing passengers to familiarise themselves with the facilities.

We have also introduced a preferential queue and a dedicated security checkpoint for passengers with disabilities, manned by personnel who have undergone disability awareness training. The airport also features 20 accessible toilets; 16 in the domestic and international terminals, and four in the business lounge and a VIP terminal.

Paramedics will also be available to help passengers with special needs during check-in, security checks and transfer from the departure lounge to aircraft.

JT: When did Sochi International Airport begin its upgrade programme in preparation for the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, and what have been the main challenges and rewards?

LS: We started the airport’s revamp right after Russia succeeded in its bid to host the 2014 Olympics back in July 2007. The first stage of the project involved the refurbishment of an airstrip, taxiways and a ramp for private jets, followed by upgrades to the airport terminal and all facilities.

The main challenge we now face on a daily basis is establishing smooth coordination between airport services, partners and government bodies. Like the atomic industry, aviation is one of the most strictly regulated sectors in Russia because of security issues. We have to adhere not only to internal documents and procedures, but also to the requirements of security services and other government watchdogs.

We solved the problem by dividing the airport’s operations into four sectors according to client groups – regular passengers, athletes, representatives from the business community using private aviation and government officials or ‘leaders’.

The summer and winter tourist seasons were an ideal time to test the airport’s interaction with regular passengers, while the recent winter sport test competitions gave us tremendous feedback on how to best serve Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

Similarly, the International Investment Forum in September 2013 helped us to adjust services tailored to business aviation and by serving state leaders and government officials regularly visiting Sochi, Basel Aero gained invaluable experience of serving top-level guests.

"Sochi International Airport now boasts mobile check-in desks where passengers can print out boarding passes using smartphones."

We have also established an Olympic airport control centre, a closed-loop system that integrates operations in Sochi, Krasnodar and Anapa airports. The information generated will be available to these airports and state bodies in real-time.

JT: How has the upgrade project been funded and have there been any significant cost overruns?

LS: We’ve invested $450m to the airport’s development; around 40% of this sum came from Basel Aero and 60% from Russian state-run lender VneshEconomBank (VEB).

JT: Are you confident that the Winter Olympic Games will leave a genuine legacy for Sochi Airport that will improve security, passenger services and access of less able passengers in the future?

LS: As of now, I can confidently say that Sochi International Airport is ready to host the guests of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games and I am optimistic that the vast improvements were have made will form a long-lasting legacy.

The gateway will be used for some of the world’s top political and sports events shortly after the Games. In June, Sochi will host the G8 Summit, followed by an International Investment Forum in September. An annual Formula 1 Grand Prix race will take place in October, while in 2018 a stadium in the Olympic Park will be one of Russia’s arenas during the football World Cup.