New Athens airport now a bustling European hub

 - November 26, 2007, 12:19 PM

For many European Regions Airline Association (ERA) general assembly delegates, their arrival here in Athens will have been their first sight and experience of the new Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, opened just six months ago at Spata. Already the new facility is running ahead of its business plan with more than a million passengers a month, and over 600 daily movements being handled in June.

ERA delegates will be encouraged to know that the new airport offers state-of-the-art security with as many as five levels of screening. “[It] is one of the few airports in Europe processing all baggage with the latest tomograph equipment,” according to airport officials. Manned computer workstations display images of any hold bags rejected by  explosive detection equipment.

If items fail to pass further back-up screening, the system requires removal of suspect material by the passenger or defusing operations by a police bomb squad. Greek air-safety procedures require inspection of any guns in hold baggage and all passenger hand luggage is screened by X-ray before access is given to the departure gate lounge.

Dubbed “southeastern Europe’s new world hub,” the airport is the nation’s first in private ownership. It  begins operations as Greece sees consistent expansion in both domestic and international air travel. Passenger numbers at Athens, the sixth largest city in Europe with a catchment population of around six million people, have grown progressively. Traffic has risen from less than 11 million in 1998 to some 13.6 million last year, with vigorous expansion of regional airline activity driving the overall development.

Opening with a nominal capacity of 16 million passengers a year, the airport expects to see a 30-percent increase, to 21 million passengers within about five years. Future plans include further construction aimed at providing capacity to handle as many as 50 million passengers.

The new hub is managed by Athens International Airport (AIA), a joint venture involving the Greek government and a private consortium that ensures competition among service providers, oversees safety and security, and provides communications services.

Having designed, financed and constructed the $2 billion airport, AIA will also administrate development under a concession that runs for the next 25 years. It expects to derive 65 percent of its airport revenue from aeronautical business, the balance being made up from commercial activity at Spata, which sits 20 miles from Athens.

Travel time to the city should be reduced considerably when a planned new motorway opens in 2003. A light rail link to the Athens Metro is being considered, as is a connection to Greece’s high-speed mainline rail network. Both projects must be completed before the city hosts the 2004 Olympic Games. The airport serves some 80 international and more than 30 domestic destinations.

Like all airports, Spata has been subject to important environmental considerations, including central road access and dual independent runways to minimize ground and air congestion, fuel from ground tanks to reduce apron traffic, power and conditioned air to avoid use of auxiliary power units, natural gas heating and a dedicated sewage-treatment plant to reclaim water for irrigation. The previous airport at Hellenikon, just five miles from downtown Athens, contributed significantly to air and noise pollution.

Spata opened after a long period of stop-start planning that dates from the 1960s, when the government first acknowledged the need for more capacity. Construction began in 1978. After crews completed about 35 percent of necessary earthworks by 1982, the idea was abandoned because it was thought that Hellenikon could cope, but construction activity resumed in 1988.

In the early 1990s the Greek government launched an international tender and chose the winning German consortium in 1993. A broad range of finance sources includes the European Investment Bank (43 percent), a national development fund (for Spata and other Greek airports) raised from passenger departure taxes (13 percent), and state grants (6 percent).