When rain leaked into Tbilisi International Airport on March 9, it was the second time a roof leak occurred in the first month after the airport’s official opening ceremony.
As happened the first time, on February 18, during the second leak the floor was flooded and the escalator and other technical equipment in the waiting room were out of order after the heavy rain. The staff of new airport managers tried to cope with the leaking roof with the help of dustbins and floor cloths.
The second time, the amount of water was less than the previous time. But five days after the first leak, a strong wind blew off part of the airport’s roof. Airport workers were standing on the roof, trying to hold the rest of it with their bodies.
Construction of this airport was one of the major foreign investments in Georgia after the Rose Revolution. But the incidents soon after the opening raised the question of whether the airport is really a credit to Georgia, or whether, as political opponents of the administration charged, it is an expensive mistake.
“Now we have an airport, which is one of the best in Europe, if not built with most modern standards,” said President Mikhael Saakashvili on February 7, at the opening ceremony of the airport. The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, and the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were present at the ceremony.
The opening had been anticipated for more than a year. The president of Georgia and other government officials, together with major television companies, visited the building several times during construction.
According to Guclu Batkin, the General Secretary of Tepe Afken Urban Georgia (TAV Georgia), which built the airport, Tbilisi airport is one of the smallest projects completed by Turkish TAV Airport Holding, the parent company. The airport is designed to serve about 1,500 passengers an hour. The company hopes to recoup its more than $62 million investment over the 12 years of its contract to operate the airport.
The same company got the right to build an airport in Batumi, which should be ready by the end of spring of this year.
The opening of a new airport was expected to be one of the most important national events of 2006. The opening ceremony was planned for November of last year.
According to the representative of TAV Georgia, the building process began on January 11, 2006, and according to the contract, had to be accomplished by January 11, 2007. However, the opening was delayed, because of the Georgian government’s request to delay the ceremony until the official visits of the two leaders of neighboring countries, according to Batkin.
Batkin said that one year is more than enough time to build such an airport and they were “even slow” in the construction process, because they had to wait for a lot of building materials from abroad.
According to Batkin, construction of the airport was completed in compatibility with international standards, under the monitoring of Georgian government inspectors.
Batkin said it is not unusual to have incidents such as the leaks in newly built buildings.
“We have more than 30-40 escalators in the Istanbul airports and they stop. [...] Because this is a mechanical system, they can fail,” he said.
But political opponents of the Saakashvili government criticize the new building.
“This is not an airport, it is a puppet house meant for 15 years that cannot stand neither wind nor rain,” said Pikria Chikhradze, member of the parliamentary fraction Right Opposition, on February 27, when after three days the surface of the airport roof was taken away.
She represents the point of view of the majority of the opposition in Georgian Parliament in this case. She asked Parliament to discuss the airport situation in committee session, and find out how the money was spent.
According to Chikhradze, the airport was built under the guarantee of the government and the Parliament is obliged to look into this issue. If the Parliament will not take up the matter, she said, the opposition will insist on inviting representatives of the government to answer their questions about the incidents in the airport.
The same day, the State Minister of Economic Reforms, Kakha Bendukidze, answered the opposition’s criticism of the airport in an interview with the Georgian media.
He said that he does not see a reason to turn the incidents in the airport into “the national tragedy.”
“Money for building the airport was spent by the investor and now he will have to spend additional subsidies, so the investor himself is the victim. We all were harmed because our journalists were disposed as if our country and Parliament did not have any other problems,” said Bendukidze.
Despite press accounts, Batkin, in an interview with the Brosse Street Journal said, “the roof of the airport was not blown off, as it was reported.” He said the wind damaged about 3 percent of the aluminum coverage of the roof.
“Some workers neglected to do something. They forgot to do something on the top, but I’m not sure.
By the end of this March, it’s going to be fixed. We are waiting for materials,” said Batkin.
One of the early reports of the Georgian media on the airport incident quoted Ersel Goral, who is General Manager of TAV Georgia, as saying that among the possible reasons for water leakage and problems connected with roof was that the materials used appeared to be incompatible with local conditions.
But the company said that was never its position on why the roof damage occurred. The company said that because English is Goral’s second language, he could not express his point of view properly or others might have misunderstood him.
According to Batkin, TAV Georgia believes that one of the main reasons that the leaks occurred is that the isolations, which are the silicone strips between four large skylights on the roof, were damaged, possibly by cleaning.
“We have the cleaners, they are [from] a good company, but they aren’t experienced in cleaning this things,” he said.
“If you step on the window, it bounces, it has this flexibility. And whenever you do flexibility, the isolations, [which are] the silicone [strips], on the end, move. So, when you move or when you’re trying to get something off that glass, you, kind of scratch them as well. That’s why this happened,” said Batkin.
On the second day of the first leakage the director of LTD Tbilisi International Airport, Tamaz Kobakhidze, resigned. It is still unclear if he was fired or left his position by his own will. Kobakhidze’s former deputy - Temur Chkhaidze - replaced him.
After the damage to the roof, the Ministry of Economic Development, which had awarded the right to the Turkish company to build and manage the airport, started its own investigation into the roof and leakage problems.
Kakha Damenia, deputy minister of Economic Development, said that the judicial department is looking into the contract with TAV Georgia to find out if it is possible to put some sanctions on the company.
The company itself denies this information. Batkin said that they do not have any problems with the government.
Nodar Edisherashvili, a member of the Technical Supervisory Commission, created by LTD Tbilisi International Airport, pointed out in an interview that even though the airport is formally opened and 90 percent of construction is completed, 10 percent still remains to be done.
“The object [airport] is not over yet. 90 percent is already completed and 10 per cent is left. The work is in progress and it is planned to commission the building by May,” said Edisherashvili.
He said that during the building process, TAV Georgia took all his remarks about the construction into the consideration.
An engineer, Sulkhan Nadirashvili, has another theory for why the roof problems could have occurred. He was not involved in the construction of the airport, but according to his own experience with other buildings, Nadirashvili said that this kind of problem connected with a roof occurs mainly because builders or workers do not make certain that the roof coverage is airtight.
“Sometimes even a small hole in the roof is enough for the wind to go through the coverage and pull the whole roof to the outside,” said Nadirashvili.