The 21st FIFA World Cup has just kicked-off in Russia. The world’s biggest football (or soccer) tournament, spread over the course of a month, June 14 - July 15, 2018, will unfold at 12 venues in 11 cities across the country, nearly all of them located in the west of the country. 64 matches, 32 teams, 2.4 million football fans… who will fly and receive them all? We take a look at the country’s airport infrastructure and the main airlines to service this year’s games.

The airports

The biggest football tournament in the world, which should support between 3 million to 5 million travelling fans, will be spread out across several venues, all but one of them (in Yekaterinburg) located within European Russia, west of the Ural Mountains. These cities were chosen primarily to keep travel time manageable for the teams and the spectators, as they are close enough to each other (and continental Europe, where a majority of the fans will be travelling from). Undeniably, it is also where infrastructure is more advanced, notices CAPA Global Airport Construction Database.

It seems that some of the venues have been weighed according to the state of the airports in those areas, as much as by the state of the stadiums. For instance, Khrabrovo Airport (KGD) serves Kaliningrad, the capital of the Russian province of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. In January 2018, a reconditioned and extended runway was commissioned with terminal refurbishment scheduled to be completed by the time the World Cup starts.

Saransk Airport (SKX), although located in the smallest tournament city, has undergone major renovation in 2017, with a newly completed airfield, a reconstructed terminal and an additional temporary one. Saransk was picked instead of a more obvious choice of the nearby city of Krasnodar, which has direct connections to cities in European Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, not least being considered as the country’s ‘sporting capital’. But Krasnodar Airport (KRR), although it had its runway reconstructed in 2017 as well, a new terminal is yet to be built.

It is estimated that during the 2018 FIFA World Cup event, an additional 3.5 million passengers are expected to be handled across Russia‘s airports, out of which 1.9 million at those in Moscow. Which is unsurprising, at least for Moscow, as it is the heart of Russian aviation: it has the largest airports in the country and handles about half of Russia’s air traffic. Under the Moscow Hub Airport Development Project, construction work was supposed to be focused on most of the airports here, particularly leading up to the World Cup 2018, but it seems Russian authorities decided that these hubs were developed enough to handle the passenger and aircraft flows.

The three largest hubs serving the city of Moscow – Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo and Vnukovo – are also the largest in Russia. Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO), which began a modernization program in 2005, has plans for a new terminal and runway in 2018. A new runway, terminal (and a hotel) are also scheduled for Domodedovo Airport (DME). However, the projects for both hubs will not be completed until long after the World Cup is over. Vnukovo Airport (VKO), which acts as an alternate for the two, has no specific construction projects at all.

In general, although expansion projects at Russia’s airports have been behind deadlines in many cases, similar to what occurred with the previous FIFA World Cup host, Brazil (2014), at the same time, it appears that not as much money, or urgency, has been dedicated to airport infrastructure this time around. Perhaps the state of the country’s main airports is reasonably sound (and where necessary can be improved by simply adding a temporary terminal)?

Take, for instance, Pulkovo Airport (LED) in Russia’s second-largest city St. Petersburg. According to CAPA’s information, other than a consultation on the next phase of terminal development, which concluded in October 2017, there were no permanent construction projects scheduled at the hub. But ahead of the football tournament one of the storage units has been converted into a temporary terminal, with 50 additional passport control stands. Another example - Sochi International Airport (AER). Remember the 2014 Winter Olympic Games? That is when the airport had major upgrades, assuming its facilities were good enough for the 2018 World Cup.

The airlines

Aeroflot, Russia‘s dominant airline and the country‘s flag carrier, will definitely be the one under the spotlight during the FIFA tournament. More so, to see if the carrier can handle the major traffic increase and ensure a smooth operation, it will be the principal airline for the games, entrusted to take care of around 40% of all traveling fans. Which is why the Russian authorities have allowed foreign airlines to operate a limited number of domestic charter flights in the country during the World Cup, as the Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov announced back in January 2018.

Currently, only large foreign air carriers are allowed to fly in from outside Russia along the routes agreed with the ministry. According to Sokolov, foreign carriers will operate flights between Russian cities to “ease peak traffic” when domestic airlines are unable to carry passengers with a comparable price, at the same time and under the same terms to the same destinations, Reuters reports.

Speaking of foreign carriers, Qatar Airways and FIFA  announced that the UAE, Doha-based airline will be the official airline and official partner of the organization through 2022 World Cup to take place in Qatar. The airline has already previously partnered with FIFA and sponsors several football clubs, including FC Barcelona. This year’s football event is one of the major highlights for the Emirati company, trying to establish itself as a ‘sports-loving’ carrier.

Qatar Airways Group CEO, Akbar Al Baker, had this to say: “We could not be more pleased to be taking part in this event as the Official Partner and Official Airline of FIFA. This year’s tournament is especially exciting, as it is the first to take place in Russia, an extremely important market to us,” according to the Gulf Times. In December 2017, Qatar Airways launched new daily service between Doha and St. Petersburg with Airbus A320s. The carrier has also increased its Moscow Domodedovo airport service from two flights daily to three.