The First Woman to Head Two Airports | Tea Zakaradze – Georgian Manager of TAV Georgia

“Aviation loves punctuality and requires disciplined work” – from almost a one-hour interview for me this phrase sums up the answer to the main question necessary for sculpting a profile, that I’ve been persistently searching for throughout the interview –  about who my respondent is. I recorded the main Forbes Woman interview with Tea Zakaradze, the general manager of TAV Georgia, the managing company of Tbilisi and Batumi international airports.

Photo Credits to Lasha Ghughunishvili/Forbes Woman

Tea Zakaradze is the first woman managing the international company TAV. She has been with this company for seventeen years and today she stands at the highest position of the top manager of the company counting 1400 employees and possessing 350 million GEL assets in Georgia – in Tbilisi and Batumi.She made her first independent step at the age of 18, when she realized that in the 90s in Batumi as well as in Georgia in general thinking of development and receiving due education was unimaginable. It was the time when there were only two or three international flights performed from Batumi international airport at the maximum.After having experienced many transit flights, she often dreamed of being able to fly to any city in the world directly from Batumi.  Probably she would not have even thought then that not only would she fly to many different directions after some time, but also would become the general manager of the two main airports of the country: Tbilisi and Batumi after a few years.

At the age of 28 from quite a large-scale infrastructural project of BP (Spie Petrofac International) you came to the great aviation. This is the field where men dominate up to now. Was it difficult to take over an airport in the so-called Man’s Club?

At the beginning of my carrier, my decisions, because of my loyal attitude toward the employees, caused questions concerning my managerial skills due to the existing stereotypes.

I used to occupy various leading positions in TAV since the day it entered the country and the way I have made to the position of the general manager has not been easy in any way, but the stereotype that aviation is the men’s field even increased my motivation to achieve the highest point in the goals I had set for myself. The challenges I met on this way tended to become even more and more attractive.

Having worked in different positions in the company enabled me to acquire a better knowledge of the field that was totally new and unknown to me. From the day I came to TAV, I used to be trying to be involved in the activities of all the departments and get better acquainted with all aspects of the airport operation.

And what have you learnt during this period?

This is a kind of work that goes on for continuous 24 hours a day with no breaks. During these 17 years I have not switched my phone off, if you can believe me. Everybody around expects me to be in the airport at all times, many of my acquaintances have my number saved as “Tea Airport” in their mobiles.  

17 years must be more than enough to have become so tightly associated to the airport.

Photo Credits to Lasha Ghughunishvili/Forbes Woman

The airport business likes punctuality. We do not have time. Flights require accurate servicing. My character and discipline fits airport very comfortably. But for this character of mine, as well as the threads that got me tied to this business from the very beginning, I would not have been doing this all for so many years.

Airport requires discipline and unless this is a part of your character, as of the manager and if it is seen and guessed by your employees, managing will be very difficult.   

What is the management style that you prefer to choose?

Working from the office or only observing the operation processes has never been my style of management. The fact that I was actively involved in the processes of Tbilisi international airport starting from the stage of its construction let me learn all details required for smooth operation of airports from aerodrome to car park.

Till 2005 I was only a passenger and would never imagine how many people and how much of their work it took to take me – a passenger from one country to another. I would never imagine that for just one flight a minimum of up to 150 services were supposed to be provided to an airplane, let alone other various services of terminal operation.   

And yet, what has changed after your changing your place from a passenger’s to that of a general manager? 

Today, when I manage two airports, being a passenger, an employee, the manager and others at the same time, I keep telling my team that it is very simple to develop what you already have while creating something new is much more difficult and interesting.

A few weeks ago we were watching the airport video archive and I can firmly say it that we have successfully replaced that “soviet style building” with a totally new, international airport of modern standards, staffed it with qualified human resources, set up a training center which is the first training center in Georgia offering to the persons working in the field of aviation training programs that are certified by ICAO and IATA. 

What is most important, we have created a precedent of systemic management of airport.

At the same time it is natural that the airport that was built in 2007 requires extension, development and provision of new terminals.

Listening to you speak of the airport I now think to myself how larger the concept “airport” is in fact, as different from that simple understanding of it under which we, as a rule, imagine only a terminal or an air company.

This is in fact a big challenge. People don’t have a realistic understanding of what airport means.

It is far not only a terminal or an air company. Airport is the aerodrome, the runway, a 330 ha area in which grass needs to be mown, fences need to be taken care of, complex security measures need to be taken, as it is a strategic object and so on and so forth.

Airport is actually a small town. Sometimes I joke that I am a mayor of a town. The meetings held and the decisions made in the airport during a day are incomprehensibly versatile.

For example, you are negotiating with an air company on how the airport can be flexible and comfortable for them with its tariffs, services, personnel; what kind of human resources should we have: knowing English, German, French, Turkish, Russian or the programs required for check-in personnel… and as soon as you finish these negotiations, you immediately start dealing with topics like opening a new café or a shop, a new bank or clinic entering the airport; discuss design solutions or the need for opening a laboratory.       

Moreover, Batumi airport is totally different from Tbilisi in its demands and requirements, as it is a touristic point. We thoroughly prepare for the touristic season of Batumi for four months, doing our best and still, at least once in every two weeks I need to go to Batumi and I do it regularly, as I cannot manage the airport at a distance – I must have immediate contact with the object under my management.    

A good leader and manager relies upon a competent team. Are you proud of your team?

The largest and most important investment is our employees – the people upon which the airport relies today – “People can make or break a company”.

Yes, I am proud of my team, of each of our employees who used to build the history of modern Georgian aviation before TAV and continue doing the same with it. I am proud of their achievements be it in a team or individual.

I am proud of saying that we are almost the only company in Georgia retaining the creators of its history – our employees who have achieved the pension age.  

Over these 17 years we have created the most valuable, qualified human resources in the Georgian aviation.

Having developed standards that were new for the reality of our country, we have applied modern aviation standards to the airports.

Today TAV Georgia is the most stable company outstanding at the labor market with its systemic corporate culture and the best conditions created for its employees.    

Do you easily find young personnel and specialists in your field?

After the pandemic we found it especially difficult to find personnel – this is a global problem on the aviation market. Our main achievement over this period was that we maintained our entire staff – each and every personnel and this was highly important. This helped us to move to the post-pandemic period easier and immediately started the process of flights operation.

But at the same time we found it hard to find additional personnel, as young people had mostly moved to online platforms by that time.

Photo Credits to Lasha Ghughunishvili/Forbes Woman

I keep telling my managers to bring interns to the airport, to show them the activities we perform here, get them interested. We maintain close cooperation with higher educational institutions: aviation and technical universities, as we need builders, engineers, architects, electricians, mechanics.

We have quite many training programs with exchange programs abroad and local qualification upgrading ones as well. We make large investments in young people as tomorrow they will be doing the business here. No matter the same happens under the brand of TAV or on behalf of Tbilisi international airport – they need to create quality and observe the highest standards.

Today, be it inside the country or beyond it, everybody requiring an aviation specialist approaches us.   

I’ll bring you an example: three years ago TAV bought an airport in Almaty and I am very proud that my employees work there up to now. TAV is a handling-type company and we extend our help to them through sharing with them our knowledge.

Presently we have negotiations with some other post-Soviet countries too, but I cannot specify any details now, until the tender processes are over with our participation and the contracts are signed.

My team is a wonder team: these are the people with practical knowledge and skills in aviation gained and enriched over years. The team of TAV is staffed with such people exactly.     

You mentioned the pandemic. In financial terms aviation and its related fields got especially damaged by it. Have you regained the 2019 figures yet?  

So far we have not gained the 2019 figures back in either passenger flow or financially.

The damage the field of aviation has experienced globally this year will go up to 10 billion. In 2020 it was up to 140 billion. This means we can say that we are already having positive dynamics. According to IATA prognosis, airports and air companies will return to the pre-pandemic situation in 2023. The pandemic has shown us that aviation is the most important link in the chain of economy of countries.   

Against the background when airports are actively privatized globally, investor companies develop the field more freely in terms of digitalization.

Our goals for the coming years are introduction of new technologies in both the airports in passenger handling, baggage check-in or self-check-in processes. To this end we had quite fruitful meetings at the most prestigious aviation forum held in Paris – Passenger Terminal Expo. We are ready to perform additional investments to transfer the airports into “smart airports”, but this additionally requires new infrastructure.

Does the investment environment let you be so foreseeing?     

There are many factors that the investment environment of the country depends on, including political stability and economic development. We have overcome various challenges together with our country: the 2008 war and economic crisis, multiple political turbulences, the pandemic, 13 ministries of economy and their deputies, to which we had to start communication from a new page to inform them on our ongoing projects and challenges we were facing and yet, notwithstanding all this, we have not stopped any of our projects and completed them all through our close communication with the government.     

It is clear that the pandemic remains to be the main challenge on the way to final recovery, but I have often heard from my respondent significant figures in business that they used the period of the pandemic for opening new possibilities. Has TAV managed to do the same?    

The negative financial impact of the pandemic is obvious: according to an international audit, this loss in the international airports of Tbilisi and Batumi is estimated at up to 100 million dollars in total.

This period, when companies were calculating their losses, we used to make additional investments. In Batumi, for instance, we spent 17 million dollars and built a new arrival terminal in the closed airport.

I think this is what distinguishes us from other companies: the services should be improved in a way to not disturb the passengers.

In Batumi this year we are already approaching the figures we had in 2019. As for Tbilisi, we think that this year we will get up to 65-70% of the 2019 passengers back.

We don’t stop: we changed the asphalt pavement on the roads in front of the airport, added a new runway – all this cost us up to 3 million USD.

Photo Credits to Lasha Ghughunishvili/Forbes Woman

Generally, investments practically never end in the airport –we require up to 3-5 million US dollars annually to maintain the infrastructure.

Some costs are visible, some are not so directly and clearly visible. For example, very expensive IT systems can never be seen, but they mean a large investment.

We bought new equipment as well: in Batumi we started the pushback operations for the first time. We bought 2 pushbacks at 300 thousand dollars in total, in addition to which the aerodrome was completely marked anew as well as the stands to perform the operation.

We are updating the check-in, financial accounting, baggage handling systems. Many new investments will be directed to these updates too. We do our best to simplify passenger servicing processes and other services provided by us.

Passengers should feel themselves comfortable and safe with us – this is our main task.

How would you assess your achievements in this view?

The airports have been awarded with many awards. I would distinguish a few from the Skytrax achievements:

✓ Batumi international airport was named for the first time among the best 10 airports of Eastern Europe while Tbilisi international airport gained the title for the ninth time in succession;

✓ Tbilisi international airport – the most improved airport of the year;  

✓ 5 star – Tbilisi international airport was named to be the most COVID-safe airport.

Did the fact that TAV is an international company played a positive role for you during the pandemic?

The holding is growing: 2-3 airports are added to its portfolio every year. This means that the company is constantly developing. Therefore, the fact that we are part of such a holding is a very big benefit.

Today, we are among the 100 airports managed by TAV and this network was especially useful during the pandemic. At the first stage, when we couldn’t even understand what was happening around us, sharing the experience of other international airports under the management of the holding helped us – for example, in how the Covid-security procedures were followed, how queues were managed, what was happening at the border…

I think it will be good for everyone if a company with such experience and these vast resources stays in Georgia.

Let us not speak about events after 2027 and tell me about your closest in time wishes and goals, if you choose so.

I have two dreams: that the national carriers become stronger and the beneficial for them conditions are provided and that Georgia establishes as the cargo hub in the region.    

I really have a dream to have a strong national airline in the country, flying under the Georgian flag, with daily direct flights to numerous destinations in Europe and Asia. For better or worse, Georgian Airways has come a long way to these days but it’s a private company, anyway and I want the country to have a strong state air carrier. This is very important.

As a private company, we do everything we can in this view – presently we impose the tariffs for local, domestic flights that are practically nothing. We offer the best what we can, customizing our terms and services as it suits them just to let them fly, yet no one flies, the Tbilisi-Batumi flight is empty even at the summer season.

Georgia has always been of great importance in the region from the cargo viewpoint and therefore it will be good if additional terminals are built in this direction.

In general, by 2024-2025, Georgia will need new investments, new infrastructure, a new airport.

We will not hide it from you that we are negotiating with the government of Georgia on staying in Georgia after 2027 as a company. Regardless of whether TAV will remain in Georgia, together with our French partners (ADP Ingenierie), we are working on a master plan for the development of Tbilisi international airport and we will hand it to the state in January 2023. The Master Plan includes both infrastructure development and financial and marketing analysis of the airport for the next 20 years. This is quite an expensive and time-consuming project that in international practice costs airports up to USD 500 000.

If we speak about my personal dreams, I want my son to be well and I want to be with him for a long time. The main motivator for me has always been my elder son. I became a mother at a very young age and every step I took since then was made toward securing his future.

My mother, who always gave me great encouragement played an important role in my formation as a strong and independent woman. I was born in a family of doctors and my mother held a leading position in the field of medicine; during her professional career she broke many stereotypes and barriers, what helped me as a woman to make my path professionally and not fear challenges. What was most valuable out of what I learnt from my parents is caring about other people and this is very important for me today, as for the manager.

Thus, we came back to where we began: today, after so many years, do you feel comfortable to be the first Georgian woman having the status of the manager in the company in which you have spent 17 years in various positions?

I am very happy to work in an international company for which gender is not a problem.

Worldwide, despite a number of significant changes made in recent years, ensuring gender equality and creating an environment conducive to women’s economic empowerment in the workplace remains a big challenge in both the private and public sectors.

I can confidently say that the policy of TAV Airports provides for the employment and development of employees ensuring gender balance. To date, 44% of the top management employees at airports managed by TAV Airports are women, which is a truly encouraging figure for the male-dominated aviation industry.

Unfortunately, in aviation you will not often find a woman employed in the technical department, flight operations or, generally, in management.

At TAV we employ people based on their competence and skills, not on the basis of gender or age.

The only key to success is hard work and determination.

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