Russia suspends air links with Georgia after social unrest in Tbilisi

Georgia Airlines from neighbouring countries are likely to benefit from the situation (Tbilisi airport)

Direct air connections between Russia and Georgia have been formally suspended by decree of Russian president Vladimir Putin banning local airlines from flying to the Caucasus republic from July 8 onwards.

The decree, which was issued on June 21, comes after violent protests in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi regarding the controversial participation of the Russian delegation in the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO).

The Russian ministry of transport has imposed a temporary ban on flights of Georgia’s airlines to Russia, temporarily ending direct air links between the countries.

Two Georgian airlines – Georgian Airways and MyWay Airlines – operate direct flights between the two countries, as well as six Russian carriers – Aeroflot, Pobeda, Ural Airlines, S7 Airlines, Red Wings and Smartavia.

The decision means that one of the liveliest leisure travel markets has been closed in the midst of the peak vacation season. According to Russian on-line reservation services, in the first half of 2019, Georgia topped the list of the most popular international destinations for Russian tourists.

Russia’s Transport ministry has assessed that the consequential losses to Russian airlines may reach three billion roubles (US$47 million), including direct losses and other expected damages and the ministry is ready to consider allocating compensation to the carriers.

The loss of another commercial air travel market will only further exacerbate the existing financial woes besetting the Russian airline industry. According to the Russian Air Transport Operators Association, at the end of the first quarter of 2019, the industry’s combined losses amounted to 45.3 billion roubles, 33.2 per cent worse than for the same period of last year. These current losses are already comparable to the total losses of the entire year 2018 that, according to the finance ministry, approached some 50 billion roubles.

Nevertheless it is the Georgian air transport industry that may suffer the bigger consequences of the political tensions between the two countries. Mariam Kvrivishvili, the head of Georgia’s National Tourism Administration, estimates the potential losses of the Georgian travel industry at about a million Russian tourists and up to two billion lari (US$715 million). The country was expecting to welcome 1.7 million Russian tourists this year, contributing more than US$890 million to the local economy. Last year more than 1.4 million Russians visited Georgia, a figure that represents some 20 per cent of the total international tourism traffic into the country.

At the same time, neighbouring countries may benefit from the impasse, as previously demonstrated when air connections were suspended with Ukraine in 2015. In that instance, transit traffic between Russia and Ukraine helped Belarusian airline Belavia and Minsk airport to mushroom by substantially increasing their passenger numbers.

Air travel between Russia and Georgia has been suspended before, in 2008, during the Russia/Georgia military conflict. Charter flights between the counties were resumed in 2010 and scheduled flights fully restored in 2014.

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