Zvartnots: Armenia's International Gateway

The eye-catching glass façade of the new terminal is accented by coloured panels and allows natural light to flow throughout the building. (All images: AIA)

Craig West examines the development of Yerevan’s Zvartnots International Airport from a former Soviet hub to one of the most modern facilities in the world.

The eye-catching glass façade of the new terminal is accented by coloured panels and allows natural light to flow throughout the building. (All images: AIA)

In December 2001, the Armenian Government signed a concession agreement passing the management of Zvartnots, Yerevan, into private hands.  The 30-year contract with the Argentinean firm Corporación América – owned by Eduardo Eurnekian, an ethnic Armenian entrepreneur – entered force on June 9, 2002, when the full subsidiary, Armenia International Airports (AIA), was established.
With the country’s new-found freedom following the fall of the Soviet Union came the need to upgrade its transport hubs.  For the first time, Zvartnots could host international services, but significant preparation was required before this was possible.  Under the terms of the concession, AIA had agreed to construct a new terminal building, but realised that an interim solution was necessary and invested heavily in the existing facility.
The architecture of the original terminal, which was opened in 1979, was quintessentially Soviet.  Made from heavy concrete, the circular terminal and distinctive air traffic control tower was reportedly inspired by Paris/Charles de Gaulle’s Terminal 1.  The building was designed to cope only with domestic passengers, which it did very well, and was considered to be one of the best facilities in the former Soviet Union.  However, Zvartnots was simply a gateway within the USSR with most flights from Yerevan going to the central hub at Moscow.  The circular design left little scope for expansion, leaving facilities such as customs, security and new check-in desks to be squeezed in under the $90 million Phase 1 investment programme.  Other improvements included re-laying the airport’s single, 12,629ft (3,849m) runway and the installation of a new Category 3 lighting system.
Work started on Phase 2 of the development in 2004 when AIA began construction of the new terminal building.  The first element, the arrivals hall, was completed in September 2006 with the departures area following in June 2007 – however, passengers continued to check-in using the original, but refurbished, Soviet-era terminal before proceeding through a specially-built walkway into the new facility.
The opening of the new halls ushered Zvartnots into a new era.  Designed to handle two million passengers per year, the 206,674sq ft (19,200m2) departure concourse is twice the size of its predecessor and has six gates, including five with airbridges and one for remotely-parked aircraft.  It includes a business lounge which stretches the entire length of the building and has an offering on a par with its Western rivals.  The new facility has a spacious, modern ambience through the heavy use of glass and natural materials, while passengers can take advantage of a selection of retail outlets and WiFi.
 
Phase 3
The final element of AIA’s expansion plan was launched in spring 2008.  The $160 million Phase 3 project covered the construction of the public zone and check-in area, effectively completing the new terminal building.  Financed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Asian Development Bank and German investment corporation DEG, the 370,000sq ft (34,000m2) extension was fully opened to the public in November 2011, though an official ceremony was held on September 16 as a fitting tribute to Armenia’s 20th anniversary of independence celebrations.
The airport’s Deputy General Manager, Andranik Shkhyan, explained that the new terminal underwent a phased opening.  “The terminal was inaugurated in September 2011, but for the first month it was used to handle only arrivals – departures were added later.  The phased opening allowed us to deal with any problems as they arose, while doing this at the start of the winter season meant that the volume of flights was far lower.”
Mr Shkhyan added that the building incorporates strong European influences and has a Westernised feel.  “It offers a simplified and more efficient layout [compared to the old terminal] but also gives provision for expansion.  It is designed to meet the anticipated increase in passenger traffic.”
 
A New Era
The introduction of Zvartnot’s new terminal marked the end of an era for passengers travelling to Yerevan.  The now closed Soviet-era building stands adjacent as a prominent symbol of Armenia’s past, and all flights and operations have relocated to the new 559,742sq ft (52,000m2) facility.  The terminal was designed in-house to meet IATA’s Level 2 standards and can handle up to 3.5 million passengers per year.  The ultra-modern check-in area is finished in white and light turquoise tones, highlighted by bright orange counters and finished with traditional motifs while the 46 desks effectively double the airport’s capacity.  Most eye-catching is the glass and steel façade – accented by coloured panels – which allows natural light to flow throughout the terminal.
Mr Shkhyan is understandably proud of the new-look airport and is keen to emphasise the importance of the investment.  “We are now well placed to compete with regional rivals such as Tbilisi in Georgia.  The terminal incorporates the latest technology in all possible areas including climate control, security and baggage handling.”
In addition to meeting international standards, many of the design features were dictated by local geography.  Armenia is in an area of relatively high seismic activity and the new facility was built with this in mind.  Lead rubber isolators were installed in the building’s basement, effectively acting as shock absorbers in the event of an earthquake.  The original plan also called for the entire roof to be glazed, but with temperatures in the southern Caucasus region reaching over 40ºC (105ºF) during the summer, it was necessary for designers to compromise between aesthetics and practicality.  In the final design, 40% of the roof area is glazed while a glass louvre system reflects direct sunlight, reducing heat but allowing in natural light.
The new facility has a spacious, modern ambience through the heavy use of glass and natural materials, while passengers can take advantage of a selection of retail outlets and WiFi.

Construction of the new facility was not without its difficulties.  Corporación América’s Project Manager, Lucas Perez Monsalvo, explained that one of the biggest issues was the sourcing of suitable equipment and materials:  “Almost all of the building material had to be imported.  Armenia, being a landlocked country, created a significant logistical challenge and we faced many problems getting the construction materials delivered on time.  On several occasions, airport agents had to fly to the bordering countries to solve transportation problems, while the long lead-in time was particularly troublesome where items were forgotten.  It was also very complicated trying to communicate specifications, requirements and deadlines with contractors, though these difficulties were soon addressed.”
Construction work at Zvartnots has not been limited to just the terminal, with several other developments having recently been completed.  Significantly, the Phase 3 development included a 240,000sq ft (22,000m2) multi-storey car park, the first of its kind in the country.  The government-owned and operated air traffic control tower was built three years ago while a new ‘Presidential’ facility, for use by the Armenian head of state and other high-ranking officials, was opened at the end of May.
Keen to strengthen its position among its regional neighbours at Baku and Tbilisi, the airport has also included a standalone VIP lounge within the new terminal and has added a cold store to its 78,000sq ft (10,000m2) air cargo facility.  Interestingly, the latter is currently used to house large quantities of Armenian wine, an unusual side project for Corporación América.
 
New Markets
Yerevan’s international airport has experienced remarkable growth over the past decade with passenger figures having doubled to over 1.6 million since AIA assumed control of the concession.  For the most part, locally-based national airline Armavia was the largest operator.  However, its position has slowly eroded since it was sold to private Armenian investors by its former Russian owner, S7 Airlines, in 2005 and it has endured a particularly difficult 12 months.  As Armavia withdrew routes from the capital, other carriers stepped in to fill the void, and today Zvartnots boasts six-times weekly connections to Prague courtesy of CSA, while Air France and LOT have also increased their presence in the country.  Meanwhile, some airlines have retained their frequency but have upgraded the equipment used on flights to Yerevan – Austrian Airlines, for example, recently swapped its Bombardier CRJ for the larger Airbus A319, a move which has been welcomed by the airport.
Yerevan’s location on the old Silk Road route between Asia and Europe makes Zvartnots an excellent option as a small transit point – a market that is being actively pursued.  AIA Director Juan Pablo Gechidjian said the airport is pushing hard to attract transit passengers:  “Yerevan is very well positioned between Europe and Asia as an optimum transit hub and our new terminal is equipped to handle this.”
However, a real sticking point is the contract awarded to Armavia by the Armenian Government, granting the carrier exclusive traffic rights from Yerevan.  “The success of the airport is very much dependent on Armavia,” Mr Shkhyan reflected.  “They have withdrawn several services recently and in some cases, such as [flights to] Germany, no-one else has stepped in.”  He added that the prospects for Zvartnots will look significantly better once this deal expires in March 2013, particularly if the rumoured open-skies arrangements come to fruition.
Unsurprisingly, the largest market for Yerevan is Moscow, with flights operated by Aeroflot, Armavia, Transaero and S7; the city also has frequent connections to others across the CIS.  However, with Europe’s major cities between three and a half and five hours’ flying time away, the Armenian capital has proven to be too far for the continent’s low-cost carriers – though interest is strong from Gulf-based carriers, with flydubai operating to Sharjah in the UAE and negotiations reportedly at an advanced stage with other airlines from the region.
Currently only British Midland International – bmi connects Armenia to the UK, with a daily service which continues on to Tehran.  Mr Shkhyan commented that, despite the regional alternatives of Tbilisi and Baku both offering cheaper handling charges and fuel, the airline has selected Armenia because it is considered a key market.  The importance of the service is reflected by confirmation that British Airways, which recently acquired bmi, has committed to operating the flight for at least the next two to three years, despite being likely to withdraw the onward flight to Iran.
One reason that Yerevan has been able to attract European carriers is that it is open 24 hours a day.  Unlike many of its Western counterparts, Zvartnots has no curfew, so many airlines operate to it during the night; a wave of departures during the very early hours is commonplace, making it one of the airport’s busiest periods.
Zvartnots’ continued growth has encouraged AIA, which is now considering introducing further links to destinations such as Lebanon and Syria.  The current focus continues to be on attracting medium- and long-haul traffic to Yerevan with China being targeted as a potential market, along with the large Armenian communities in Argentina and the US.
 
Optimistic Outlook
For AIA, the focus for the future remains in the development of Zvartnots, and the authorities have recently signed a letter of intention to connect the airport to the country’s rail network and develop a free trade zone.  The new facility’s capacity of 3.5 million passengers per year is expected to be sufficient until the end of AIA’s 30-year concession, though the airport can expand the building further under the Phase 4 project.  The terminal, with its strong local and European design influences, has been well received by both the general public and passengers, and has turned the airport into a genuine competitor to its regional rivals.