AER’s Olympic Olympiad

Feb. 24, 2014
Long after the last Olympic skier hits the slopes and the final skater takes to the ice, Sochi International Airport’s Olympic improvements will shine gold

The Olympic rings have stood outside Sochi International Airport (AER) for mere months, but this Russian aviation hub has trained for this moment for years.

The region spent an estimated $50 billion upgrading its infrastructure, including the airport, ahead of the games, making it the most expensive in Olympic history. Airport operator, Basel Aero, invested close to $450 million on a new 43,000-square-foot solar powered terminal and other needed improvements.

“Sochi International Airport has upped its game, providing speedy access to Moscow from the games sites, and between the sea and mountain locations, in order to attract more spectators,” reported Kevan Gosper, chief of the press commission for the International Olympic Committee (IOC)

System, Processes and People

“In 2007, when Russia won a bid to host the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Basel Aero faced a tremendously challenging and interesting task of turning a Soviet-style regional airport into one-of-a kind modern facility,” says Leonid Sergeev, CEO of Basel Aero, a firm that manages and oversees the airports of Sochi, Krasnodar, Gelendzhik and Anapa. “We had to ask ourselves how we could create both an efficient and customer-friendly airport that would reflect Sochi’s image as a modern Olympic host city.”

Ultimately Basel Aero decided to take a system approach and divide the airport, which currently serves approximately 2 million passengers per year, into three forming pillars: System, processes and people.

All static elements, including the building itself and other airport facilities, are considered the “system.” Here, the airport fully revamped the airstrip, taxiways and other airside facilities, and upgraded the terminal. In 2010, a newly built Sochi international terminal, resembling a modern spacecraft, opened its doors to passengers.

Developers also split airport operations, or processes, into four sectors according to client groups: Regular passengers, athletes, business people using private aviation, and government officials.

Their next step was to test these sectors to determine what was needed. “Summer and winter tourist seasons were ideal times to test airport operations … these tests gave us a tremendous feedback on what we should improve in serving athletes, both Olympians and Paralympians,” says Sergeev. “The International Investment Forum held in Sochi this past September helped us adjust business aviation services. And, by serving the state leaders and government officials who regularly visit Sochi, Basel Aero gained experience serving top guests.”

Preparations also included establishing an Olympic airport control center, a closed-loop system that integrates operations in Sochi, Krasnodar and Anapa airports. Information from this center is available to these airports and state bodies in real-time.

Through slots distribution, the airport is able to evenly spread out flights. “Peak hours should not be higher than during tourist season in summer,” says Sergeev. “The only difference is that in summer we work in one sector but during the Winter Olympic Games we will open three sectors and almost double the staff.” 

People were the last component considered. Basel Aero plans to double its 1,000-member team, bringing in staff from other Russian airports, during the Games. And because the airport will turn into a multi-lingual melting pot during the Olympics, the company ensured every team member could speak English in order to properly serve passengers.

“More than 500 people from our team have already passed English courses, as part of the Olympic Hospitality Program,” Sergeev says. “And, all the members of our team regularly take training on passenger and ground handling operations,”

System Set Ups

Basel Aero pulled out all the stops to ensure smooth sailing during the arrivals and departures of the Games’ 6,000 participants and their guests. An advanced 1,476-foot-long boarding gallery with 10 boarding bridges gives customers comfortable access to aircraft.

“For an airport of this size, three or five telebridges would be enough but we took into account a tight flight schedule during the Games and increased the number of telebridges to 10,” Sergeev says.

Today the airport features a new 43,056-square-foot VIP terminal for IOC delegates and other high profile guests. This terminal is capable of handling 85 passengers per hour, and boasts five conference rooms, a workroom equipped with desktops connected to the Internet and a printer, a 56-seat common area with catering service, a 35-car parking lot, a dedicated entrance/exit road, and a site for motorcades. A 12-stand ramp for business jets sits adjacent to the terminal.

“All preflight procedures are available in VIP Terminal, including check-in and security control,” Sergeev says. “Equipment for registering passengers in the VIP Terminal is produced by NKI Group and supplied by Van Der Lande.”

“We tested the terminal during the International Investment Forum, an event attended by a number of business delegates,” says Sergeev. “Everything went smoothly but we still made final adjustments so to ensure the facility perfectly fit the needs of our Olympic guests.”

The VIP Terminal will see use long after the athletes compete as Sochi’s reputation as a hot tourist spots continues to grow. “The area’s mountainous and seaside resorts draw a significant number of private jets,” Sergeev explains. “A revamp of a VIP Terminal was just a matter of time. Now that we’ve upgraded it, we’re confident we can serve upcoming high-profile events.”

The airport also followed examples set by other Olympic host airports and opened a specially designed temporary Games Terminal to serve athletes and organized fan groups. This 27,986-square-foot facility can handle 420 passengers per hour to help divert thousands of people from the airport’s main terminal. It also significantly relieves the main baggage system because athletes receive their luggage in the Games Terminal.

“This terminal can also serve regular passengers during peak hours,” Sergeev says. “And, in adverse weather conditions, we have contingency airports in Krasnodar and Anapa, around 300 miles away from Sochi, at the ready to serve Olympics-bound aircraft.”

An Eye on Operations

Focusing on airport operations also ensures smooth arrivals and departures, according to Sergeev.

The airport is now divided into three sectors to optimize passenger flow. Sector A serves Aeroflot and S7 airlines, while sectors B and C handle other domestic carriers and international airlines respectively. The entrances and exits from the airport building are separated while public transport stops and taxi parking area are located in front.

“We’ve also upgraded check-in and baggage handling systems since they are the key factors influencing the airport’s service rate,” says Sergeev.

Sochi Airport invested heavily into new check-in equipment. Today, the airport boasts 19 state-of-the-art check-in counters produced and supplied by Dutch-based NKI Group; 10 self-check-in terminals; and mobile check-in desks where passengers can print out boarding passes using smartphones.

“We have optimized the time for passenger check-in,” says Sergeev. “Now it takes just 45 seconds to check-in an economy class passenger while waiting time for check-in does not exceed 15 minutes. We closely monitor daily operations and see that this timing is adhered to in 95 percent of the cases.”

Baggage handling also received a tune-up. The airport added a three-level baggage check system by UK-based, Rapiscan which has a handling capacity of up to 7,000 units per hour. Baggage handlers utilize Van Der Lande equipment.

 “One of the biggest concerns expressed by future guests of the Games was luggage handling,” Sergeev says. “We tried various technologies and processes to achieve the fastest possible results.” Today the first luggage placed is claimed within 15 minutes while the last one goes up to 25 minutes 93 percent of the time.

Super Security

As public concerns rose over potential security threats at the Sochi Olympic Games, Basel Aero put the final touches on a beefed up security system designed to keep everyone safe. Sergeev says the airport made passenger security a priority, and doubled the amount of security equipment and staff prior to the games.

Security preparations began as far back as 2011, when Basel Aero entered a partnership with Electronika, a Yaroslavl-based company and leader in development of integrated security systems in Russia. In July 2013, Electronika installed a new security system, which Sergeev says enables security officials to “monitor security conditions 24/7, proactively spot suspicious situations, and react in a timely manner.”

During the Olympics, Basel Aero plans to bring in additional security staff, primarily cadets from Russia’s Ulyanovsk Higher Civil Aviation School; experienced security specialists from Moscow-based AeroMASH-Aviation Security, a leading Russian provider of aviation security services; as well as from other Russian airports.

A Better Tomorrow

Today the airport stands flamboyantly dressed for the Games, with banners sprinkled in Russia’s traditional patchwork of patterns and colors stretched across the terminal.

But long after these banners come down and their colors fade, the vast improvements made to Sochi International Airport will stand tall, forming a long-lasting legacy as the gateway is used for some of the world’s top political and sports events in the future.

In June, Sochi will host the 40th Annual G8 Summit, which will be followed by the annual International Investment Forum in September and the Formula-1 Grand Prix race in October. A stadium in the Olympic Park will be one of Russia’s World Cup arenas in 2018.

AER’s Olympic Olympiad will stand like a beacon long after the last Olympic skier hits the slopes and the final skater takes to the ice. Basel Aero expects the airport’s annual passenger traffic to reach 4 million by 2019, and when it does the Adler, Russia, airport will be ready.