One-to-one with Evgeniy Ilyin, CCO, St. Petersburg Airport
St. Peterburg Airport, known as Pulkovo Airport or Northern Capital Gateway, is Russia’s fourth largest airport and a facility that is growing at a vast pace. Last year the airport handled 18.12 million passengers, a rise of over 12% versus 2017. During the same period, traffic movements increased by 9.6% to 165,400 while 20 new routes were added. Breaking down St. Petersburg’s traffic figures into segments, 61% flew on domestic services, with 39% travelling internationally. Since 2009, the number of international passengers has increased from 3.5 million to 7.1 million, while domestic travellers have grown from 3.3 million to 11 million last year. Overall it means St. Petersburg’s traffic has gone from an annual total of 6.8 million in 2009 to 18.1 last year. This represents a growth rate for the past decade of 166%. To learn more about the airport’s developments in recent years, and its pland for the years to come, anna.aero’s Aviation Development Editor Jonathan Ford sat down with the St. Petersburg Airport’s CCO Evgeniy Ilyin.
anna.aero: “Looking back at 2018, what were the big highlights for St. Petersburg?”
Evgeniy Ilyin: “First of all, we had a historic record when it came to passenger traffic. We handled 18.12 million passengers. This represents quite big growth for us, almost two million more passengers added to the results of the previous year – growth of 12.4%. Of course, there were some special events, including the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which brought with it a large increase in the number of flights. As a result, we opened the old terminal to accommodate the fan groups which came via charter operations.
“From an infrastructure point of view, we developed the baggage transfer product which allows us to make it easier for passengers to transfer not from just domestic-to-domestic, but also domestic – to – international and international-to-international. This product is now in place with most of the carriers who deliver transfer passengers.
“In terms of the network, four new carriers came during the past year, all international [Air Malta, Germania, Onur Air and Sichuan Airlines], and we added 20 new routes in locations all around the world, including West Europe and China where five new points were added alone.”
aa: “As you mention there, we know that Chinese routes have had a large impact on St. Petersburg and the Russian market in recent years, can you elaborate more on their impact?”
EI: “Chinese traffic is growing year-on-year, and we have seen this stable growth over the past four years. In 2018 we had growth of around 24% in the market, and here we are talking only of direct passengers, as we still see a lot of Chinese passengers travelling on domestic routes, particularly from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Some 280,000 passengers travelled directly between St. Petersburg and China last year, with five new routes opened during the last 12 months, namely Chengdu, Xi’an, Haikou, Shenzhen and Nanjing.”
aa: “Have the Chinese routes been performing to the expectations of the carriers so far?”
EI: “Yes. The biggest category of passengers coming as a tourist to St. Petersburg are mostly Chinese travellers. Also 100% of Chinese travellers that are visiting the European part of Russia as a tourist come to our city. We have both Chinese and Russian carriers delivering Chinese tourists, including Ural Airlines, and because most Chinese tourists travel in groups, they also visit in big numbers which is great for airlines.”
aa: “Just before Christmas, Emirates operated the A380 into St. Petersburg for a number of services. How was the operation with that aircraft for the airport?”
EI: “From the handling point of view it went perfectly well. We were prepared beforehand. Emirates saw that there is a seasonal peak for passengers travelling outbound from St. Petersburg. The route is very popular, as they are capturing the market for the many who want to travel to South East Asia, Africa and Oceania, routes which are still somewhat lacking from our network as non-stop options. But the Emirates daily flights, and now Qatar Airways, are offering good options for passengers.”
aa: “You mention Qatar Airways there, a carrier which has just celebrated its one-year anniversary of flights to St. Petersburg.”
EI: “Yes, Qatar Airways started in December 2017. They operate with a daily flight as well, flown using a single-aisle A320 family unit. They are adding capacity when there is peak demand at certain times of the year. For instance, during the period where many cultural events took place in the city, the airline added the 777 on the route to increase the capacity for several days in order to meet demand.”
aa: “As you state, many passengers using Emirates and Qatar Airways are connecting onto destinations in South East Asia. What are the most popular links which are not flown directly from St. Petersburg at the moment?”
EI: Well, the biggest flows are to China, Thailand, Vietnam and India. Some passengers are travelling to South Korea even there are direct seasonal flights. Regarding big unserved markets for us, Bangkok, Guangzhou and other points in China, Tokyo, Mumbai and Delhi are among the most popular unserved destinations.”
aa: “Are there hopes for direct flights to the US?”
EI: “Indirect traffic to the US is very high, with many connecting mostly via Moscow and Helsinki. The top unserved destination is New York, and it is on our top priority list to develop this route. We had success in discussions with a few carriers before the economic conditions changed in Russia a few years ago. We have also had discussions with several airlines regarding the possibility of fifth-freedom rights to fly via St. Petersburg onto the US, and this is a business opportunity that we are working closely on, as well as continuing talks with other carriers.”
aa: “In terms of the passenger experience and the development of their expectations, what plans has the airport got in place to advance this process?”
EI: “We are developing our non-aeronautical revenues and the concept of walk-through shops are now presented in the terminal, plus a new arrival duty free store which will be opened end of March this year. Of course, we have made a lot of improvements in order to reduce the waiting time for passengers in queues around the terminal, and this process is a non-stop business case in order to improve the passenger experience.
“From an aviation point of view, we plan to start a self-connect programme this year and we have already made some studies and preliminary work to get this up and running later this year, ideally by the high-summer.
“We are in this partnership with Kiwi.com, and they studied our infrastructure and processes. They made the conclusion that due to very comfortable infrastructure, we are not in too big a territory of being a mega-hub, and they concluded that passengers do not need to spend too much time in the long distances crossing the processes, including security checks and boarder control etc, to get from aircraft to aircraft. Passengers are well accommodated here. Due to this, we do not need to make too many infrastructural changes in order to adopt self-connect. Of course there will be requirements with the baggage process, including special baggage tags, but in general, we are more or less ready to accept this product.
“The product itself needs the sales points, and through Kiwi.com, passengers are offered very short and comfortable connection options through St. Petersburg.”
aa: “From the connections point of view, are there any possibilities of airlines re-establishing their schedules to St. Petersburg to make this process more seamless for the passenger?”
EI: “This is the next point of course, and this would be the ideal solution. However, airlines are not always ready to change their schedules for many reasons. Of course we will, together with Kiwi.com, make those proposals to airlines where we see the potential, and when carriers find it interesting for them, we think it will be possible. But, we have not reached this stage just yet. We need to make and start this programme on those existing flights which are already scheduled without any active changes to the schedules.”
aa: “At the moment, how many passengers connect through St. Petersburg, and have you forecast how many passengers you expect to use the new Kiwi.com product?”
EI: “I would be careful to announce this at this stage as it is still a theoretical figure that needs to be proved, but at the moment our transfer traffic is really low, accounting for around 3-4% of total traffic. Of course during the summer season this is higher because there are more frequent travellers and more active flights scheduled to operate leading to more options for passengers to connect. One more point which is interesting with the self-connect story, is to create a stopover product for passengers, in parallel with the transfer option, for those passengers which can get out of the transit zone with the possibility to go visit the city. It will be an interesting and good opportunity that could be pushed through sales in the system to be created by Kiwi.com.
“At this point we are also attracting St. Petersburg’s tourism and city government authorities in order to support and actively pursue this programme. There is a working group already created in the city, coming together to get hotels, museums, restaurants and others interested in this possibility to create the product. This should be interesting.”
aa: “In terms of visitors to the city at the moment, what are the most popular inbound markets and which are the key markets which you want to develop over the next few years?”
EI: “We are happy to welcome all visitors from around the world of course! The biggest segment now is Chinese travellers. We are seeing growth from various markets though. For example, this year we had a lot of visitors from Vietnam and India. Traditionally Europeans, mainly Germans, French, Italian, Spanish and British visitors are quite regular travellers to St. Petersburg. But due to the short distance, and of course the problem with the visa, it is a challenge to advance these numbers at a great level. Americans are also big visitors to the city. Of course not all visitors to St. Petersburg are using direct flights, but a lot of transit flights from Moscow, and also cruise passengers, which of course have the advantage of having 72-hour visa-free access to the city.”
“The visa is one of the limiting factors, I would say the biggest, in trying to improve inbound tourism development. Not just for St. Petersburg, but Russia in general. We work closely with the city authorities and stakeholders who are interested in improving this development to improve the legislation and make changes for simplification of the visa application process.”
aa: “Wizz Air has been at the airport for over a year now. Has the route from Budapest performed well, and is there the possibility of other ULCCs exploring the St. Petersburg market?”
EI: “We are constantly working with European low-cost carriers to attract them to our market. The biggest limiting factor is the bilaterals which can stop carriers coming to Russia. For instance Wizz Air can only operate from Hungary to Russia. It is the same for other low-cost carriers from their home markets. They like to operate from multiple airports, not just one, in order to develop their network at new stations. But we continue to work and talk with these carriers to establish routes between their countries, and then look at what could be developed in the future if the bilaterals change.”
aa: “How many passengers does St. Petersburg expect to handle in 2019?”
EI: “We expect to get close to 20 million passengers this year, maybe a little under, but we expect about 9% growth this year. For January, we saw around 14% growth. We understand this is big growth in the low season for us, but we do not expect such strong figures in summer as the traffic numbers are almost twice as much in that period.”
aa: “What new routes are coming in 2019?”
EI: “We have SunExpress coming from Izmir which is another new point on the map from Turkey, while based carriers including S7 Airlines are expanding. It will launch a scheduled direct service to the Russian city of Irkutsk, as well as to the Mediterranean resorts of Olbia and Palma de Mallorca. The network of long-haul flights for S19 will receive additional service from St. Petersburg to the Chinese destinations of Fuzhou and Hangzhou, flights which will be operated by iFly Airlines. New routes for the upcoming summer season will also include domestic destinations of Elista with Azimuth Airline and Nizhnevartovsk with Utair.”