Olympics a boon for Greek bizav?

 - May 7, 2008, 11:27 AM

The 2004 Olympic Games, to be held August 13 to 29 in Athens, may prove to be a significant growth factor for business aviation in Greece, including the creation of profitable investment opportunities in ground infrastructure. The flow of visitors is expected to rise starting next year and culminate around the start of the games.

Officials interviewed by AIN rotate around three points regarded as retarding factors for business aviation growth:

• Shutdown of regional airports, especially Hellinikon.
• Limited dedicated ground infrastructure, especially runways and parking areas.
• Air traffic capacity.

The necessary athletic and supporting installations for the Olympic Games dictated transferring regional airport activity to nearby locations. The Marathonas Airport shut down and the aircraft it served were transferred to Hellinikon International Airport. However, Hellinikon operated only until March last year, when it too was shut down and all activity there was transferred to the new Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in the Spata region, just outside Athens.

Greece’s transportation minister said that after Hellinikon’s shutdown–and regarding the broader field of general aviation–all aircraft owners “can use any airport they prefer.” While this might sound convenient, it has served more to create uncertainty because the government did not prepare for new or existing airports to receive these “homeless” aircraft and handle the expanded air traffic.

Ioannis Haralambakis, Thessaloniki International Airport senior director, pointed out that helicopters now use the installations in Pahi at Megara city, where military helicopter activities are also based, while the remaining aircraft are hosted by Tattoi and Tanagra airports; the latter is also home base for the defense company Hellenic Aerospace Industries (HAI). HAI is offering parking as a temporary measure.

Shutting down Hellinikon dealt a significant blow to the Greek aviation infrastructure, since the airport could have hosted new buildings and the general ground infrastructure to expand the region’s business aircraft handling capabilities. Hellinikon had been operating for a long time, and allocating resources to its business aviation facilities would have made commercial sense in the context of the Olympic Games.

But Hellinikon seems to have been permanently put out of the game, with the government’s decision to keep it shuttered. Exacerbating matters is an ongoing legal fight between the government and residents of the area on the final use of the property. Any use for aviation purposes, even if the government were to reverse its decision, will likely have to go through the courts. This will take time, and any decision will probably not emerge before the Olympic Games.

These three retarding factors will probably create unfavorable situations, especially delays, as private aircraft converge on Greece for the Olympic Games. All international flights must land and take off at one of about 10 international airports in Greece for custom controls and security. The aircraft can then fly internally to any airport.

Bicycles in the Avenue

The current capacity for air-traffic handling, combined with the relatively limited parking resources, is both the heart of the problem and the investment opportunity. Air traffic is considered an asset that must bring commercial profit, and for a new facility such as the Eleftherios Venizelos Airport in Athens, which can handle a maximum of 65 takeoffs/landings per hour, allocating part of this number to business aircraft means losing income from more profitable commercial flights.

Panayiotis Grigoriou, airfield services director at Athens International, recognized the possibility of increased business aviation traffic as the Olympics approach and pointed out that the airport operator is working on plans to expand handling capacity, especially regarding parking spots.

An official illustrated the commercial/business aircraft dilemma as “putting bicycles in the avenue.” They somewhat limit the ability to handle the traffic in the avenue due to their unpredictability, and at the same time they are not as profitable as the predictable flow of airliners.

The military and HAI-operated airports do not have any such constraints. The users of private aircraft need only not interfere with military flights. There is no commercial element involved, and the ground facilities of a military airport have the flexibility to host any aircraft. Use of military facilities does not seem to be a long-term solution, but it is convenient in view of the lost capacity at airports that were shut down.

Eleftherios Venizelos

Grigoriou said the new Athens airport can serve all business aircraft without extra procedures. After an aircraft has landed, the handler tows it to one of the two parking areas: the main area designated as “general aviation” or the auxiliary area alongside the buildings handling cargo flights. The original standard capacity could accommodate 30 aircraft, but this has been increased with the overload areas.

In any case, the current number of parking spaces will certainly not be enough for future needs, especially during the 2004 Summer Games. Parking fees are not high: e100 a day for a 10-metric-ton aircraft and around e30 per day for smaller aircraft.

Olympic, Swissport and Goldair are the three handlers for business aircraft at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, offering ground services for private aircraft. Handling costs are over and above the parking fees.

The airport operator took some logical measures to speed passengers of private flights through customs and security procedures. These travelers can use a separate gate to exit and enter the airport to avoid the crowds, and all processes, including baggage screening, are performed separately from airline passengers. A handler guides the passengers of private aircraft through the procedures in the main terminal.

Grigoriou also noted that aircraft maintenance is available. If Olympic Airways has licensed and type-rated mechanics for the specific type of aircraft, it can do all work in its hangars. Otherwise, the aircraft owner can bring his own mechanic.

What might happen if an aircraft becomes disabled at one of the military airports is not known. Certainly, HAI’s presence at Tanagra is a guarantee of professional maintenance (since this is the main service the company offers to the Hellenic air force), but insurance provisions might oblige the aircraft owner to use other technicians.

Security

The security infrastructure at the new airport is one of its most notable assets, one that has ranked Eleftherios Venizelos among the top airports internationally. Covering a region of six square miles, it is three times bigger than Hellinikon and 10 times the size in terms of buildings. Takis Tassopoulos, director of safety and security, emphasized that immediately following September 11 the airport achieved 25-percent security enforcement within two hours, thus proving its flexibility to pull security resources and counter any threat.

Security should now be viewed as an inseparable part of daily operations for a number of reasons. First, September 11 has served to highlight the security measures implemented at any large event such as the Olympics. Second, the inclusion of Greece in the European Schengen “security territory” dictates strict security requirements, since anyone entering Greece enters the Schengen territory.

The airport operator has adopted a unique security approach–with government consent–in that it has assigned a large number of security tasks to private companies. Tassopoulos explained that the police have the overall responsibility, and the company approach “brings assistance by conducting specific control to ease the load on the police so that they can supervise the security system more effectively.”

The company is responsible for guarding and protecting the airport, access control, patrolling for physical protection, passenger and hand- baggage screening and complete three-level baggage screening. Anyone and anything passing through the airport is subjected to all of these checks. Security tasks have been contracted to cover three distinct action areas: guarding, patrolling and access control; passenger and hand-baggage screening; and hold-baggage screening.

The companies that were awarded contract work include Hermes Aviation Security, ICTS, Wackenhut, 3Delta and a subsidiary of the Frankfurt airport operating company.

The first security level includes a “smart” X-ray system that is used to search for any suspect items. If it spots something, the image is sent to an operator who must evaluate within 15 sec if it is a false alarm and release the baggage or divert it to the computer tomographer (CT). The CT will receive the baggage automatically if the operator does nothing within these 15 sec.

If the CT indicates the item is suspicious, a thorough check is carried out at the next level. The security system also includes Tetra secure portable communications equipment and fiber-optic wiring, which limits the effectiveness of electromagnetic pulse weapons and interception methods.

Investment Opportunities

It is a widespread belief in Greece that many of the existing problems can be solved, and that business aviation (along with the broader general aviation) operators can get a powerful boost if there is at least one airport in Greece dedicated to those segments. It will have to be an international entry and exit point, since an existing international airport may not alone be able to handle the increasing business aircraft traffic due to limited ground infrastructure and fixed slot allocations.

As mentioned, airport managers tend to see private flights as a less profitable option to the airlines. Despite this belief, there is talk of a dedicated GA airport close to Athens, which could possibly allow occasional airline service. The association of private aircraft pilots has already asked the government to establish such a dedicated airport in the Kopaida region of Lamia.