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19 June 2024, 19:17

Reasons behind Lukashenko’s decision to keep Minsk airport state-owned despite difficulties in 1990s

 

Exactly 10 years ago, in 2014, the Belarusian president came to Minsk National Airport to inspect the progress in the airport modernization effort. Back then, the media reported instantly that Lukashenko was satisfied with the work done. Indeed, he was. But the praise from the head of state never means that you can rest on your laurels. When touring the airport, President Lukashenko outlined new goals and objectives.  In the new episode of the YouTube project "After the Fact: Lukashenko’s Decisions" we will tell you why Lukashenko was thinking of selling Minsk National Airport. How did a pilot of the presidential jet assess the new runway? Where does Belavia fly now? 

“Everything should be top-notch”

Minsk National Airport is the main air harbor of the Republic of Belarus. The construction of the airport began back in 1977. First airplanes took off from the airport five years later, though some construction work was still ongoing. The airport did not have major repairs for more than 30 years. Much of its physical infrastructure and technology grew outdated. Given that the national airport accounted for the lion's share of passenger and cargo air traffic, the air harbor was in urgent need of renovation.   
The head of state had to take the situation under control. In 2013, shortly before the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, the president delivered the Address to the Belarusian people and Parliament. He described the situation as difficult and protracted when asked by an MP about the ability of the national airport to handle an inflow of arrivals ahead of the upcoming championship.

It should be noted that the situation was fast-moving. Many things were accomplished within a year, including paperwork, investments, project coordination, and a significant part of the construction and installation work. By the way, out of almost 80,000m2 of the total area of the airport complex almost 65,000 m2 was up for upgrade. This accounted for 82% of the area. The amount of work to be done was huge indeed!

Construction organizations kept on schedule and delivered high-quality work, which was inspected by the head of state in April 2014.  

The airport building, which many considered gray and even gloomy, was transformed. The modernization project turned out to be successful. “It seems that you seriously examined all the options, chose the best one and did your best considering our capabilities and conditions,” the head of state said as he visited the airport in the spring of 2014.
Then he instructed to finish the airport modernization project by the end of the year. “The buildings and the grounds should be overhauled by the end of the year. Everything should be top-notch, because people get their first impressions of a country as they land in an airport. Everything should be beautiful," the president said.
 
According to Dmitry Ostrovko, Deputy General Director for Construction and Infrastructure Development of Minsk National Airport, the passenger service areas were expanded during the reconstruction. Today, the total area of the airport complex is 92,000m2. 

“New X-ray inspection equipment and check-in desks were installed, and their number was increased. The airport has three panoramic elevators instead of the previous two, lifts for people with disabilities, and nine escalators. The airport navigation system was improved. Even after the modernization project was over, the airport continued annual modernization effort,” Dmitry Ostrovko noted.
Lukashenko on the idea to sell the airport

Everyone loved the renovated airport: bright, spacious, comfortable. Interestingly, back in the day the fate of the main air harbor of Belarus hung in the balance. In 2014, the president admitted that when he had just taken office, the times were very difficult and he was mulling over an idea to sell the airport.  

"When I became president, a lot of advisors suggested selling the airport for a song citing good intentions of making a change in its fate. You know, the times were difficult and I had a thought ofselling it as the national budget was in disarray. But I changed my mind and said that airports were assets and we would not sell a single airport.” the head of state said as he spoke about the situation in the 1990s.

Developing the country's transit potential is a strategic priority for Belarus. Air communication is of great importance. The head of state was always mindful of the Minsk National Airport development prospects, even in difficult times. Whatever the challenges and hardships, he still made the right decision. Our president does think years and even decades ahead.

If we fast-forward, we will see another vivid example of Lukashenko's far-sighted policy, no matter how pompous it may sound now. 

Safe landing in zero visibility

In April 2014, the head of state also recalled his instruction to build a new runway at National Airport. "I instructed to look into a project to build a new runway, about 4km long, the most advanced one, with an additional terminal to it, taking into account the free economic zone,” Aleksandr Lukashenko touched on the topic at one of the meetings.

The previous runway wore out over the years of operation. Its technical characteristics grew outdated and did not allow accommodating some airliners. At that time, there were several options for cooperation with foreign companies. 

“Sometimes we jump on a deal that only looks good. But an investor offering us seemingly favorable terms will charge us double the price in the end. So, maybe we should do things on our own? People have been building these runways for a long time; thousands of them have been constructed around the world. So let’s take a good project and hire a smart designer who will supervise this project and tell our designers what to do and how,” the president noted. 

It just so happened... It didn’t work out with investors, as they wanted to charge way too much. As a result, the decision was made in favor of domestic companies. And it turned out to be the right decision! 

According to Dmitry Ostrovko, the first runway had been in operation since 1982, or for 42 years. The standard service life of runways with concrete pavement is 23 years. In other words, this runway exhausted its capacity almost two times. Therefore, it required annual repairs and renovations. In 2018-2019 the airport was much busier than it is today, therefore it was very difficult to schedule repairs. As the service life of the runway was long overdue, a decision was made to build a new one. A respective presidential decree was implemented; the new runway was commissioned in 2018 and has been in operation since 2019. The runway is 3,700m meters long and is fitted with the most advanced precision approach systems.  The runway allows landing in zero visibility, in practically an automatic mode,” the deputy director general of Minsk National Airport said.

The second runway was assigned the highest category, which increased the transit appeal of Belarus. This will not only make traveling more convenient for passengers and aviation professionals, but will also bring more money into the country. 
 
Aleksandr Lukashenko called the commissioning of the second runway an extraordinary event as he arrived at the airport. Indeed, the president's jet was the first one to try out the new runway. A couple of weeks before it was unveiled, the head of state’s jet took off from the new runway as it was heading to China and landed on it upon returning to Minsk. “I asked my pilot to share his opinion of the runway, and he said: “I’ve only seen such a runway in the United Arab Emirates.” This means we can do it. The project cost us not $600 million, but about three times less. This is no small feat. This shows that that we can do everything, we just need more determination,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said. 


Setting the bar even higher! Modernization continues
 
Belarusians know their president well. He is a very fair person. Yet, whenever he acknowledges achievement, he sets a bar even higher. This is what happened with the airport. 

“I am grateful to you for what you have done, I am grateful to our construction workers. I want to tell you: please get ready for even more ambitious tasks. Belarusians should do everything on their own. We can do this,” the president said at the commissioning of the second runway.
 
After this conversation, the work on modernization went on. In particular, in 2020 the repair of the first runway began. “Our first runway is also in operation today. It will be used when the second runway will be closed for sealing joints. We make sure our runways are interchangeable, which is very convenient,” the deputy director general of the airport said.  

“Last year, the head of state visited Minsk National Airport, inspected its facilities, studied the airport development plans, and gave instructions to maintain the first runway in working condition until renovation works get underway. The work to fulfill the president's instruction began. Last year, a large amount of repair works was done on the first runway. About 100 slabs of the top layer of covering were replaced on a total area of ​​about 7,500 square meters. Potholes were removed using modern repair materials and compounds. Currently, the runway is safe for flights,” Dmitry Ostrovko said.
 
Indeed, in August last year the president revisited the development plans for the country’s main gateway. It was not just about the operational capabilities of the runways. Aleksandr Lukashenko demanded drafting a long-term development strategy for Minsk National Airport. The visit also highlighted the need for a new passenger terminal in view of the growing passenger traffic at Minsk National Airport that already surpassed 5 million people a year.  Aleksandr Lukashenko gave instructions to prepare a relevant project to build the passenger terminal and a rail link and then study it in detail. It is of crucial importance to make plans and take steps bearing future prospects in mind, the president said.

The state will always support its people!

During the visit to Minsk National Airport and the aircraft repair plant a year ago, Aleksandr Lukashenko promised state support to the enterprises that had been affected by sanctions. Our president made it clear then that the state would always support its people.

“You should pay less attention to the pressure that the West exercises against our enterprises, including the airport and Belavia. We will find a way out in any situation and will not leave our enterprises struggling,” the president said. “When this madness began after Ryanair [flight 4978 incident], I told the pilot of my aircraft to convey it to his colleagues that we will not leave them in trouble,” the head of state said as he met with the employees of Minsk National Airport and the aircraft repair plant.

No matter what our adversaries aimed to achieve, Minsk National Airport has managed to fight off the West’s sanctions and stood strong. Just like 30 years ago, the president’s support came in handy again.

According to consultant with the Aviation Department of the Belarusian Transport and Communications Ministry Gennady Kostyuk, Belarus has redirected flights from the West to the East and the South, which helped increase the number of flights. “We keep developing, with passenger traffic gradually recovering and increasing. Last year Minsk National Airport served more than 2.5 million passengers. This is an increase comparing to the previous years. The national air carrier Belavia operates flights to 22 airports in ten countries, including the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Türkiye, the United Arab Emirates, and India. A new destination was added last year,” Gennady Kostyuk said.

He added: “In addition to Belavia airline, Minsk National Airport provides services to nine foreign air carriers - six airlines from the Russian Federation, and also airlines from China, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. The main destination is, of course, the Russian Federation and its regions.”

The consultant with the Aviation Department said that new routes were launched in 2023-2024. 

“Although Western airlines stopped flying to Belarus, and our airline Belavia stopped flying to the West, we continue operating flights to the regions of the Russian Federation, to the countries that are friendly to us. We have redirected flights from the West to the East and the South. The number of flights is increasing in this direction.

What flights do oblast airports offer?

Minsk National Airport is not the only airport in Belarus. The president’s decisions and instructions related to the oblast airports as well. In 2010 Aleksandr Lukashenko gave instructions to launch regular international flights from Brest. In 2017 (still before the aviation sanctions) the president revisited the issue. The airport was underutilized. So were airports in other regional centers. Following the president’s instruction, Minsk National Airport as well as all regional airports of Belarus is gaining momentum today.

“All regional airports deliver international services and meet all necessary requirements for servicing flights. We are working hard to make our regional airports busy. For example, the Gomel airport launched flights to Moscow in October 2023. The Gomel airport launched flights to St. Petersburg in March 2024. In April, the Brest airport started servicing flights to Moscow,” Gennady Kostyuk said.

In his words, these flights are in high demand among travelers. The increasing frequency of flights testifies to the fact. “In October flights from Gomel to Moscow were operated three times a week. By now their number has been increased to five,” he cited an example.

“In the spring the regional airports launched charter programs to southern regions. Today Belavia operates flights to Türkiye from Gomel, Vitebsk and Brest. Flights have also been launched to Egypt from Gomel and Vitebsk,” the consultant said.

“The Belarusian aviation industry is constantly developing despite the turbulence,” the specialist said.

No one is immune to turbulence in the air or in politics. The key point is to have an experienced professional in both.

That was a new episode of the project “After the Fact: Lukashenko’s Decisions”. Subscribe to our channel to stay updated on all our latest videos. We talk about things that matter.

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