Destruction of Ukraine's airport infrastructure has been a common tactic of the Russian Federation since the first days of the full-scale war. The invaders pursue several goals at once. First, to make it impossible to supply weapons to Ukraine by air. Secondly, because most airports in Ukraine are dual-base, for civilian and military use. Thirdly, to cause panic, chaos and fear, as well as to slow down economic activity.
Over the past year and a half, missile strikes have damaged more than half of all Ukrainian airports and airfields. During the night of August 14-15, Russia launched another missile attack, this time targeting airfields in western Ukraine.
Which airports have suffered the most during Russia's war against Ukraine and how much will it cost to rebuild them? How are their staff and management living now? How long might it take to reopen? Which airports might not be reopened? LIGA.net was looking for answers to these and other questions.
Of the 35 Ukrainian airfields belonging to civil aviation, 19 have suffered some damage during the war. 12 of them are exclusively civilian airfields. Another seven are so-called dual-use airfields that were also used for military purposes.
According to aviation expert Bogdan Dolintse, the most heavily attacked airfields were those in the south of Ukraine – Odesa, Kherson, Mykolaiv. In Kyiv Oblast – Zhuliany, Boryspil and Antonov airport in Hostomel. In the east – Kharkiv, Dnipro, and others.
"There is accurate information that these airports were targeted by the enemy. The airports that are further to the rear suffered the least damage. These are the airports in central and western Ukraine," he explained.
According to Denys Antoniuk, an aviation expert and former head of the State Aviation Administration of Ukraine (SAAU), the "strikes" at the airports and airfields in the west were mainly to dual-purpose airports in Lutsk, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Rivne.
"But they did not try to damage civilian airports in the west – missiles are expensive and from a military point of view, it does not make sense," he explained.
According to Antoniuk, since 2014, the airports of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kherson have suffered the most from the war. For objective reasons, we cannot determine the condition of the first two airports right now. It is possible that all that remains of them is the runway, which is the most expensive to restore, but can be done fairly quickly. Unlike navigation systems. It is likely that these airports will have to rebuild them almost from scratch.
"The runway is more difficult to damage than anything else. It can be hit by a Shahed and it will do almost nothing. It can be hit by a missile. But with the cost of several hundred thousand dollars, there will be damage of tens of thousands at most. After all, it is essentially a layer of concrete 1 meter thick and 60 meters wide. However, if we are talking about a fueling complex, terminal, hangars, navigation system, something cheap can ‘land’ there, but it can cause a lot of damage," he explains.
Not only large Ukrainian airports have been damaged, but also those that are small in terms of traffic. In terms of passenger traffic, it is more appropriate to call them half-dead. After all, normal flights there ended in the ‘90s, explains Denys Antoniuk. These are, for example, airports in Vinnytsia, Mykolaiv, Kramatorsk, Sievierodonetsk, and Mariupol. For the last three, it is impossible to assess the extent of damage due to active hostilities.
"In terms of infrastructure, they were intact before the war – there was a runway, apron and even a terminal, but there hasn't been normal traffic there for a long time, so they were not successful in terms of commerce," says Antoniuk.
The only exception is Kherson airport. It was being revived in recent years. Low-cost airlines even started flying there, with two or three flights a day. Its recovery coincided with the annexation of Crimea. Therefore, in 2016, it was able to take over part of the "Crimean" passenger traffic. There were also many plans for 2022: in May, the Kherson airport was going to open the reconstructed first floor of the terminal. And after the launch of a new light signal strip and navigation system, many new flights were to be launched. However, because of the war, the airport, located in the world-famous village of Chornobayivka, ended up almost in ruins.
Its director, Vitaliy Kucheruk, told LIGA.net that on the night of February 25, 2022, the only thing his employees could do was to prevent the occupiers from landing on the runway.
"We rolled out equipment, we closed it completely. That's why they could only enter the airport in tank columns," recalls the director of the Kherson airport.
Later, during the occupation, the airport's signaling and communication equipment, radio navigation system, light signaling system, landing system, and flight control tower were damaged. The new concrete apron was also severely damaged and the terminal was completely destroyed. The runway was also damaged.
"It is not new, its lowest layers were laid in 1985. But we have completely reconstructed it and were supposed to put it into operation in March 2022. Therefore, we do not know how it will turn out. To find out, we need to examine it again," he says.
The extent of all the damage is still impossible to assess because of the constant shelling and strikes. In general, according to very rough estimates by the director of the Kherson airport, no more than 25% of it remains.
In addition to infrastructure damage, Kherson airport has another problem – mining. Vitaliy Kucheruk explains that the airport's grounds span more than 300 hectares and it is completely mined.
"The occupiers dug up everything there and arranged, without exaggeration, underground passages – they took plates from the runway and closed everything there. They took refrigerators and microwaves and hid underground like moles. That's why I can't even give you an approximate amount of money needed for safe demining. One survey of the airport alone costs about UAH 500,000 ($13,539)," he says.
But the main loss of the airport is the employees who died because of the war. The head of the Kherson airport's special transport service and the head of its legal department were killed directly by shells. "In total, five people have been killed in Chornobayivka over the past year and a half, and many homes of airport employees have been destroyed," said Kucheruk.
In total, according to the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE), direct losses to Ukraine's aviation infrastructure (airports, airfields, aircraft) amount to about $2 billion. In addition, there is another $460 million in lost profits due to the fact that airports have been out of service all this time.
All civilian airports in Ukraine are currently in forced downtime. The staff who are still on the payroll are even being paid their salaries. However, according to Bohdan Dolintse, not at all airports and not in the pre-war amounts.
"Usually, their salary is now on average 25-30% of what they received before the war, including bonuses and allowances," he explains.
According to Denys Antoniuk, most companies that were part of the technological process of passenger service pay nothing at all. For example, in handling – ground servicing of aircraft.
The director of Kherson Airport says that the minimum wage was paid to employees as much as possible. But given that the airport hasn't been operating since 2021 due to reconstruction, payments had to be suspended for several months.
"We supported the employees as best we could – we asked for help at all levels, organized donor assistance. During this time, the leadership of the military administration, to which we appealed to resolve the salary issue, changed three times. But still, the salary debt is now about UAH 5 million ($135,393)," says Kucheruk, who was forced to find a job closer to another airport during the occupation of Kherson Oblast, in the Hostomel military administration.
Currently, the Kherson airport employs no more than 10-15 people who have agreed to clean up the rubble. Their salaries are funded by the state through the Kherson Oblast Military Administration and the Employment Fund. But most of the staff – those who were allowed to leave Ukraine – have found jobs abroad.
"Almost all of our employees are highly educated and certified professionals, which is why they managed to find jobs in Canada, the United States, Belgium, Holland, and even Ireland, as Ryanair, which invited them, is based there," said the director of Kherson airport.
The situation at Odesa airport is similar. According to its director, Volodymyr Semenchenko, during the first month of the war, employees were still employed. But then they were forced to suspend the labor contracts for 90% of them. Some of the employees were employed at airports in Europe.
"In the past, I held the position of Vice President of Ground Handling at Swissport, and I held the same position at UIA. So I had quite close connections, which I used, and many airports were willing to find the middle ground," he recalls.
As a result, Ukrainian airport staff began working at airports in Budapest, Prague, London, as well as in Dublin, Amsterdam, and Canada.
"We were engaged in hiring employees together with the management of most Ukrainian airports. That is why people from Lviv, Kharkiv and other airports went to work abroad," says Semenchenko.
About 10% of Odesa airport employees still work there. According to Semenchenko, they do what can be compared to maintaining a fire when the fire is not burning but the coals are smoldering – they maintain airport systems and guard the territory. After all, if an airport is shut down completely, it will be almost impossible to start it from scratch.
Another important personnel issue is staff training. Despite the downtime, both air carriers, air traffic control companies (in Ukraine, it is UkSATSE), and airports must maintain their qualifications to be able to resume operations at any time. It is long and expensive to restore it from scratch, explains Bohdan Dolintse, but it is still faster and cheaper for airports to do so.
"For example, it takes several years to train an air traffic controller at UkSATSE. First, specialized theoretical training, then several years of special practical training, internships, and admissions. In fact, it is somewhat comparable to the training of an airplane pilot. But if we talk about airport personnel, the training usually takes two or three certified courses, which usually do not exceed a few weeks," Dolintse says.
The Odesa airport is already preparing for this – the management has decided to conduct initial training for employees, that is, from scratch. Therefore, they have agreed with the National Aviation University and Boryspil Airport training centers, which will provide their special reserves for this purpose.
Will there be people to train? Since a very significant part of the staff has left Ukraine and may not want to return, this is a question that the management of every Ukrainian airport is asking itself today.
Denys Antoniuk believes that after the war, the Ukrainian aviation industry will certainly face staffing problems – many specialists have quit, some have died, some have decided to change their profession, some have left the country. But, for example, the situation will be worse for airlines and UkSATSE. After all, the specialists they need are usually scarce in the labor market. Due to their lengthy education and training, they can be compared to doctors.
"But at airports, the number of such highly specialized staff is 20% on average. Everyone else – mechanics, support staff – is much easier to find, because these are general civilian specialties," Antoniuk said.
Post-war reconstruction of any airport is a long and expensive process. It certainly depends on the scale of the destruction. For example, according to Denys Antoniuk, if the airspace were reopened tomorrow, even the destroyed terminal would not prevent the airport from resuming operations.
"We can set up something like the pavilion that is used in Boryspil for Hasidim, or those compact terminals used by low-cost airlines in Europe. It would take a few weeks. That is, if it all came down to the destroyed terminal, the airport could resume operations in a few weeks," he explained.
But the terminal is not everything. There's also the runway, which takes much longer to restore. In the worst cases, up to several years. It will also be necessary to ensure control and management of the airspace, and this requires special radars. If there are spare ones somewhere in the nooks and crannies of the UkSATSE, great, explains Antoniuk. If not, you have to buy them, and it's always a slow process, because this is very specialized equipment, and it's usually not in stock. If the companies that produce them have them ready, great. If not, you have to wait. Perhaps for many months.
"Such equipment is not a bottle of milk that you can order today for tomorrow. Then you have to get it delivered, then you have to set it up at the airport. It takes many months of preparation," the expert notes.
In addition, Volodymyr Semenchenko adds, specific ground checks by the State Aviation Administration are required – the runway and the entire airport must be flown over by special planes to test it. Until then, the airport is not allowed to accept civilian aircraft. In general, it will take 114 days to restart Odesa airport from the moment when Odesa Oblast stops being attacked from the air.
Not everyone will be able to recover within this time frame. According to Bohdan Dolintse, if the airport is in a critical condition (up to the physical destruction of the runway), it may take years.
"It takes 1.5-2 years to build a normal functional terminal with all the necessary infrastructure from scratch. And it takes 2-5 years to build the infrastructure associated with the runway. If these processes are carried out in parallel, it is realistic to plan the construction of a regional airport in 2-3 years. Of course, if we have all the necessary funds, contractors, and so on," he explains.
To restart the Odesa airport, UAH 10-15 million ($271,000-406,000) are needed at the start, according to Volodymyr Semenchenko. These funds are needed to hire people, pay their salaries, and buy fuel at a time when revenues from airlines are not yet coming in.
In the case of Kherson airport, according to Vitaliy Kucheruk's rough estimates, the airport will need UAH 2.5 billion ($67.7 million) to restore the airport at the start. But now the main task there is not calculations, but demining. And then a technical inspection. The director of the Kherson airport noted the availability of funds to finance these restoration efforts remains uncertain.
"On the one hand, a lot will depend on how the local authorities and the Cabinet of Ministers treat Kherson airport. Of course, we will convince them of the need for us as an airport. Then we will have funds for the reconstruction. On the other hand, donors are now joining the funding. And we ourselves are now finalizing the creation of the Chornobayivka Airport Charitable Foundation, which will be used to seek funds for demining, defense, support for employees, and the reconstruction of their destroyed housing," says Kucheruk.
According to various estimates, about $3 billion will be needed to stabilize the airline companies, Dolintse explains. "Another $1.5 billion is needed to ensure their continued operation. "If we talk about the restoration and reconstruction of airports that are not critical to the country's economy, but which will still have to be restored, it will be another $5 billion.
"In total, about $10 billion is needed to fully restore airports," says Bogdan Dolintse.
The most expensive aspect of all this is the runway. According to Antoniuk, it costs from $100 million to $300 million, depending on the length, thickness, and width. The Donetsk and Luhansk runways will most likely either have to be very seriously repaired or even built from scratch. The construction of terminals there, according to the former head of the State Aviation Administration, will cost another tens of millions of dollars.
According to Volodymyr Semenchenko, the airports in Boryspil, Lviv, and Odesa will be the first to be restored after the airspace is reopened. After all, airports in the east will remain a gray area in terms of security for some time to come. But the airports that Denys Antoniuk called "half-dead" will be restored last. Before the war, all those airports that actually meet the needs were already operating in Ukraine.
We are talking about two Kyiv airports, Boryspil and Kyiv (Zhuliany), Odesa, Lviv, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhzhya, and Dnipro, which would have been restored if not for the war.
"That is, those who could work, eventually did. And those that were not needed have not been for many years. These are Vinnytsia, Ternopil, Khmelnytskyi, Rivne, Lutsk, Sievierodonetsk, Kramatorsk, Poltava, and others. What was missing, perhaps, was some development of the airport in Ivano-Frankivsk. Thanks to tourists, the situation there is favorable for the development of the airport. In addition, Izmail could be developed – it is quite close to Romania, and it would be possible to take part of the flow there and back," Antoniuk says.
According to Bogdan Dolintse, regional airports that have been abandoned since the 1990s can take advantage of the post-war large-scale restoration and declare the need for reconstruction to a modern level.
"Zhytomyr, Vinnytsia, Poltava, and Khmelnytskyi did not generate the necessary passenger traffic, but investments for their reconstruction and restart are very significant. That's why they were not particularly considered, there was always a lack of funds in the budget. Plus, the airports of Kherson and Mykolaiv, which are close to each other and competed with each other. From an economic point of view, two airports are definitely not needed there. But Kherson will definitely be restored, because a lot has already been done and spent on it. It has already become a kind of symbol of Ukrainian resistance," Dolintse emphasizes.