Monday, January 23, 2012

What A Difference A Decade Makes

Twelve years ago when I arrived for the first time at Rinas Airport in a driving, cold December rain, if you had asked me to complete the sentence "Tirana Airport - an unlikely ...?", I might have said:

"... place for aircraft to land."
"... destination for travelers with a choice."
"... amalgamation of decay, sloth, and corruption masquerading as a transportation hub."

Yeah, it was that bad.  The runway had been recently repaved to handle the heavy aircraft involved in NATO's mission to support the war in Kosova, but once the SwissAir plane trundled off the main landing strip, it was back to the sixties.  The surface was composed of six-sided slabs of concrete place in reasonable proximity to one another.  Taxiing at any speed above a slow dog-trot produced percussive rhythm that can only be replicated by a bad impression of some good scat-singing: "Takita, tak, tak, pap, pap, chunk, chunk, kechop, kechop, kechow!"

And that was the good part.

Once off the plane, the ramshackle bus delivered me to a terminal building that, to put it politely, had seen better days.  Surrounded by packs of stray bitches with pendulous teats, the arrival terminal reeked of neglect.  One door led to an arrival hall which made a phone booth seem spacious.  I shouldered my way past the clog of arriving passengers to see if I could identify the best way out of a bad situation.  There were two booths for immigration and customs clearance.  Once was for Albanian citizens, the other for foreigners.  I pushed toward the foreigners line, hoping to make some progress among the surging mass of humanity that pressed in all around.

I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit to traveling with a diplomatic passport at the time.  A swarthy gent with a safari vest which barely concealed the Beretta in his waistband shouted at me, "Amerikan?' I waved my passport in response and he physically dragged me through the scrum at the immigration booth.  On the other side was a concrete cell block where were a ragged hole in the wall substituted for the baggage conveyor belt we spoiled Westerners are used to. As my suitcases were unceremoniously chucked through the hole, I pointed them out.  My minder shouted at a local porter who snatched them up.  Once all the bags arrived, my newly appointed guardian bundled me and my bags into a waiting armored SUV, turned to me, and loudly proclaimed, "Welcome to Albania!"

It's not like that anymore.  Hasn't been for years.  Now, arrivals in Tirana number in the millions and pass through a thoroughly modern terminal.  A slick glass and steel facade greets travelers as they are deposited by  kneeling buses at the gate.  A spacious immigration area awaits inside with booths clearly marked and manned by professional border police officers equipped with the most modern of electronics.  You enter a queue, by itself a huge advancement for Albania, and when you arrive at the booth are quickly processed..  Passport scanned in a flash.  Unbeknown to you, your details are flashed to the Albanian Police and Interpol for a check against the most current wanted persons databases.

Once through, the baggage claim area is clean, efficient, and open.  Exit customs and you are greeted by olive trees and masonry that reflects traditional Albanian construction techniques.  A thoroughly enjoyable airport experience.

That could explain the phenomenal growth of air traffic in Tirana.  Year after year the number of airlines serving the city has increased. Passenger numbers have mushroomed.  Less than three years after the new terminal was opened, it was expanded by 5,000 square meters to accommodate traffic volumes.   Where once there were four intrepid airlines that dared make the inbound flight, there were now more than 15 battling for supremacy.  The winner so far has been Belle Air, the cut rate Italian operation that serves the needs of all the Albanian immigrants in Italy.

That said, I was quite surprised to learn the airport was due for another expansion this year.  The volume of passengers has reached the capacity of the terminal to handle and another extension was needed to keep up with traffic.  Which leads to a headline that answers the question originally posed: Complete this sentence: "Tirana Airport - an unlikely East European success story."  And it is!