Tom Allett reports from Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, Serbia’s premier gateway.
Belgrade’s current international airport has been serving the city since 1962. Built on what was previously open land near the district of Surčin, it lies approximately eleven miles (18km) west of what was then the capital of Yugoslavia.
Its single 11,155ft (3,400m) long runway was easily capable of handling any airliner of that time and is still in use today. The original terminal building – now known as Terminal 1 (T1) – was joined to a second and considerably larger facility in the 1980s. However, due to the outbreak of the Yugoslav civil wars between 1992 and 1995 commercial aviation was shut down for a considerable period that severely damaged the industry. For a while, a complete no-fly zone was established and enforced by North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) forces. In addition to the damage caused by the civil war, various United Nations sanctions imposed between 1992 and 2000 also had a serious impact on the national economy.
In September 1998 the Yugoslavian national airline JAT was banned from flying to EU airports and eight months later the ban was extended to prevent airlines from EU nations flying into Yugoslavia. These restrictions were lifted in February 2000 and the slow rebuilding process began.
In approximately 20 years the former Yugoslavia had fragmented into the nations of Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Bosnia – Herzegovina and the still-disputed territory of Kosovo. The impact of those civil wars and the political upheaval that followed can still be felt in the region today. The recent global economic downturn has added to those difficulties of course, but in the past year Belgrade – now the capital of Serbia – is beginning to benefit from a gradual revival in commercial aviation.
The airport’s name honours local hero and famous scientist Nikola Tesla, an electrical and mechanical engineer who was at the very forefront of work to introduce commercial electricity supplies to the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, what the first time visitor would see as the main airport building is in fact its Terminal 2 (T2). Standing outside the main public entrance, to the extreme right of the structure is T1 which was physically linked to the main building when the gap between the two was filled in some ten years ago. T1 is largely an administrative building now, though scheduled flights are operated by some low cost airlines while charter flights are offered by foreign carrier and the domestic airline JAT.
However, despite the prolonged impact on commercial aviation activities caused by the civil war and global economic downturn, infrastructure improvements have continued gradually.
Six new passenger boarding bridges were installed in mid-2005 as part of a major refurbishment of T2 that was completed in May 2006. During that time all of its major facilities and installations, including the electrical and baggage systems, check-in desks, flight information display screens and air conditioning units were replaced. In terms of service levels, a recent change is that its catering units are now required to stay open as long as there are passengers inside the building.
Outside on the airfield itself, the apron was extended to provide extra aircraft parking stands and in 2005, the runway was resurfaced.
One minor problem that had been suffered throughout its history was that when the winter conditions had produced thick fog, the nearest commercial diversion airfield was about 140 miles (225km) away. With this in mind, a CAT II Instrument Landing System was installed on the 12 end of its runway in 1997 and this was subsequently raised to CAT IIIb standards in November 2008. The CAT IIIb status allows operations to continue when the visibility is as low as 75 meters and take-offs in as little as 150 meters. The honour of performing the first landing in CAT IIIb conditions went to an Austrian Airlines crew on January 4, 2009, and that was soon followed by one from Swiss.
The airport’s electrical power systems are about to be superseded. The funds are already budgeted for and Belgrade’s current two diesel-driven generators, one installed in 1979 and the second in 1982, will soon be replaced by a single more powerful unit (see Airports International April/May 2010 for more details).
Behind the scenes, Belgrade-based Elgra Vision is carrying out much of the electrical work. Formed in 1996, the private company has hired several key players from the remnants of what was once a state-run entity that has now fallen into decline. Elgra is currently an integrator rather than a manufacturer, though this may change in the not too distant future. The company has already installed airfield lighting equipment produced by several of the most famous names in the business and has won distribution contracts from the established airfield lighting specialist Transcom.
As part of Belgrade’s ongoing upgrades, Elgra has installed several of Transcom’s CCRs within the lighting system, inserted centreline lights on the airport’s new Taxiway F and put down large lengths of replacement cabling.
Between November 1 and December 15, 2009, Elgra supplied and installed 299,500ft (91,300m) of primary XLPE cable, 1 x 6mm2 brass tape from Studer, while 986 pieces of primary connectors and the same number of isolating transformers were installed, all of which were manufactured by Efla.
As for the taxiway lighting project, Elgra’s work on Taxiway F began with digging around 490ft (150m) of trenches. Then, between November 15 and December 15, 2009, 23 Erni model IL-241 high-intensity green/green 45-Watt taxiway centreline lights were installed in both straight and curved sections. At the same time a further seven straight section red / red 65-Watt versions of these lights, plus four red Erni model EL-17 elevated units were set down to form the taxiway stop bar. The airport’s engineering department already had the latter in stock, plus the primary cables required, but Elgra supplied a further 9,842ft (3,000m) of secondary 1 x 4mm2 PVC nylon wire for the task.
The company recently won a tender to supply and install (200m) of cable ducts, six transformer pits and two wind cones for the airport. Transcom supplied the electronic systems; subcontractors were called in to do the civil (ie concrete) works, leaving Elgra to do everything else including the necessary excavation. The tricky part was that due to an upcoming ICAO airfield inspection the job was required to be completed in just 35 days. Another consideration was that while one wind cone was close to the required 380V power supply, the second was around one and a quarter miles (2km) away.
Elgra’s CEO Miroslav Knezevic told Airports International: “We designed a special ac to dc converter that had an AGL primary power supply via an isolating transformer. This ‘smart’ ac to dc converter charges an empty 24V battery which then powers LED obstacle lights. The wind cone can then be illuminated with approach lights specially installed nearby; I think that this is a unique solution.”
Hampered by heavy rain that interrupted the concreting, the Elgra Vision team met the deadline by working round the clock.
European traffic to and from Belgrade has increased noticeably since the need for Serbian nationals to have visas when visiting Schengen countries was abolished last year.
Since December 2009 the airport has been reporting significant boosts in passenger numbers between some major European cities. It that month it recorded a general upsurge in traffic of around 20% compared to that of a year earlier, while stating that its biggest increases were recorded on flights for Milan (45%), then Munich (44%), Prague (40%), Rome (32%) and Vienna (30%). In addition, at the beginning of this year, the load factor on a new route to Budapest was almost 80%. Both the Hungarian national carrier Malev and the Romanian flag carrier Tarom launched Belgrade services in December 2009 and this good news was quickly followed by more announcements.
With Austrian Airlines introducing a third daily flight to Vienna, competition arrived on February 1 this year when the low-cost airline Niki started its flights to the Austrian capital making it the most popular destination from Belgrade in terms of frequency.
Danish airline Cimber Sterling has served Belgrade from Copenhagen twice a week during this summer season while Spain’s Spanair has offered Barcelona three times a week since April and Air Baltic introduced four flights a week to Riga on May 5. On June 12 low-cost carrier Wizz Air introduced three-weekly Dortmund flights and followed this with the same number of services to London Luton.
More flights will follow after Wizz Air’s recent announced that it will make Belgrade its 13th hub. Rome/Fiumicino and Malmö will added to its destinations from December 15 and, looking further ahead, the airline plans to add services to Eindhoven, Memmingen and Stockholm/Skavsta from April 2011.
Perhaps the most noticeable recent addition though is that of the Slovenian national airline Adria Airways, which started a six times per week service from Ljubljana on March 1st, 2010 after an 18-year absence.
This growth in summer services has triggered the need for more parking space, which was achieved by connecting the previously separate A and C Aprons while increasing the size of the latter by around 50%. A further five passenger boarding bridges have also been added, and covered / tunnel passenger boarding stairs were introduced for the first time. Modern Cobus 3000 buses now provide the apron passenger transfers.
Currently, including a security charge levied to purchase new x-ray screening equipment; these stand at €15.3 (US$19.98) per passenger departing T1 and €19.8 (US$25.80) from T2. The charge is paid as part of the ticket price rather than at the airport at the time of departure and the airport’s management team is quick to point out that the tax is lower than most levied by its rivals. Charges are also levied on transfer passengers. The airport’s management team says it hasn’t received any criticism about the charges and will spend the revenue earned from the security segment of its handling fees to purchase new passenger and baggage x-ray screening machines. They had originally decided to buy the security equipment in 2006/7 but the funding was unavailable at the time.
When I visited the airport in March this year, departing and arriving passengers were still able to mix airside within the terminal complex, therefore all outbound passengers had to go through the x-ray screening process twice. Fortunately this unpopular system will end as the building will be redesigned in line with the Schengen Agreement, leaving a single security checkpoint located in front of each departure gate. Inbound and outbound passengers will be separated by introducing glass walls in the appropriate locations while looking further ahead the airport’s management team are looking to add another floor to the building to give separate arrivals and departure levels.
During the first eight months of 2010 total passenger numbers rose by 10% compared to the same period last year. August 16 marked the airport’s busiest day so far when 13,479 passengers were handled. Overall Belgrade attracted ten new scheduled carriers between August 2009 and August 2010.
Currently 33 airlines are serving 52 destinations across three continents from the city. In terms of revenue streams, its management strategy is to increase it non-aviation income by building a hotel and business centre, while the construction of a cargo complex is also listed as one of its key projects for the future.