INTERNATIONAL civil aviation procedures are designed to create predictability. But they are not usually applicable for airports in territories that have declared independence, but have not achieved full international recognition, or a seat at the United Nations. What are the implications for airports in a country that does not officially exist?

Europe has a clutch of these territories. Kosovo’s Pristina Adem Jashari airport is a case in point. Opened in 1965, when within Yugoslavia, since Kosovo declared formal independence from Serbia in 2008, the territory has been recognised by the US and 22 out of 27 European Union (EU) nations, but Russia is blocking UN membership. Today, it is managed under a 20-year concession by Turkish-French consortium Limak & Airports de Lyon, which plans to invest Euro EUR100m to expand Kosovo’s only airport to 25,000 square metres.

EasyJet operates flights from Basel and Geneva, while a handful of airlines serve Brussels. British Airways operates weekly flights to Pristina. Airport security documents stressed Adem Jashari complies with EU standards and procedures, pointing to how it quickly implemented EU rules on liquids taken on board aircraft in 2006.

But such management issues are not straightforward, noted a spokesman for EULEX, the EU body helping Kosovo integrate its laws with European standards. First, the official international transport code for the airport remains PRN-Serbia, as Kosovo is not a member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), nor has it signed the Chicago convention, which details the rules of airspace and aircraft registration, among other things.

“Passengers coming from countries not recognising Kosovo can enter freely in Kosovo, but [there are] no direct flights with those countries,” she said. “The main challenge so far is the lack of visa policy in Kosovo, which creates some disturbances at the border.”

Flights operating to or from Kosovo cannot use Serbian air space, as Serbia refuses to allow flights over its country to or from Pristina. These flights must use a single air corridor above Montenegro, which extends flight times and increases tickets prices.

“There are absolutely no flights between Serbia and Kosovo – the only exception is official flights with EU or UN delegations flying from/to or to/from Kosovo- Serbia,” she added.

Similar problems exist at Transnistria, a self-declared republic that broke away from Moldova in 1990, but recognised only by similar territories, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia does not recognise the country but provides military and logistical support. Transnistria has no international passenger airport but has a freight and military airport at its capital Tiraspol. Requests for information to the Transnistrian ministry of foreign affairs on the status of the airport were not acknowledged, but Wikileaks released diplomatic cables in 2011 revealing that Moldova was anxious about Transnistrian plans to modernise the airport. It also emerged that during the last decade, Russian aircraft flying to Tiraspol would descend to just 300 metres altitude for the final 30km to avoid detection by Moldovan air traffic controllers.

Under an EU-Moldova-Ukraine border control agreement, all goods entering Transnistria must have a Moldovan customs stamp, but it is unclear if this is enforced for airport deliveries. This raises a wider question for all such jurisdictions. According to ACI Europe, customs and immigration procedures need “to be absolutely in line with international law” at the departure airport for an aircraft bound for an unrecognised jurisdiction. But the need for the customs and immigration procedures to be in line at the airport at the ‘other end’, does not concern the airport of origin.

Going east, South Ossetia – the centre of 2008’s brief but ugly war between Russia and Georgia – maintains it is independent from Georgia – but is recognised by just five sovereign states, including Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. It has no airport – though one is now proposed for the border area that the war’s key theatre. According to Dmitry Medoev, South Ossetia’s envoy to Russia, the airport is likely to be military rather than civilian – at least initially – and would probably be located in an area controlled by the Georgian authorities before the war. However, Russian news agencies have reported that this decision is based on practical, rather than political grounds – state commissioned architects and geologists have suggested this is the most geographically suitable location for any airport.

Meanwhile, Abkhazia – the other Georgian breakaway ‘republic’ (recognised by only six countries) – operates Sukhum Babushara Airport 20km from its self-proclaimed capital Sukhumi. But it is not used internationally as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has ruled that Georgia must give permission for flights. In international law – and not least Georgia’s perspective – such flights pass through Georgia’s airspace.

The airport’s 3,661 metre runway could accommodate large aircraft. For now, though, the only commercial flights are “internal” to the village of Pskhu’s modest grass-covered runway. In USSR-times, Sukhum Babushara was a gateway to eastern Black Sea beaches.

Last July (2011), Russian airport operator, Novaport, which manages seven Russian airports, took over Sukhum on a long-term lease after conducting an infrastructure audit. “The runaway and aircraft parking platform are in a satisfactory condition and do not require any major renovation,” Mikhail Smirnov, the general director of Novaport, told news agencies at the time, adding that the airport terminal, refuelling complexes, airport lighting and air control systems would all have to be rebuilt from scratch. Separate reports in the Russian media have suggested that Novaport believes Sukhum could receive a USD100 million upgrade in time for it to be an overflow airport for the nearby Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Another post-Soviet breakaway Nagorno Karabakh faces similar issues. Recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan, (though it operates as a de facto independent state mainly populated by Armenians), its airport near the capital Stepanakert fuels tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia. A new terminal building and air navigation equipment have been installed in recent years and, according to Nagorno Karabakh’s civil aviation service could service up to 200 passengers daily – essentially business travellers to and from the Armenian capital of Yerevan.

But flight operations have been delayed. First, the director of Azerbaijan’s civil aviation administration said such flights were unauthorised and risked being shot down. This prompted an equally firm response from the Nagorno Karabakh government and a threat from the Armenian President to board the first such flight, before cooler heads prevailed. An uncertain pause characterises the current situation. Soothing balm has been applied by Mathew Bryza, the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, who said both sides should discuss their concerns ahead of the airport’s opening.

And an even older standoff affects flights to Ercan airport in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Also lightly recognised (for instance by Turkey and Azerbaijan), the TRNC’s Ercan is not listed officially as an international airport and not listed on IATA and ICAO registers, although it has relevant codes (ECN, LCEN).

There are about 100 flights weekly to the airport from Turkey and Azerbaijan. Overflying aircraft are monitored by the Nicosia control in the Greek Cypriot portion of the island, as they enter into the internationally recognised Nicosia FIR. In an effort to establish a de facto separate Northern Cyprus FIR, Ankara in Turkey has severed communication with Nicosia. Aircraft approaching Ercan use the DOREN air corridor north of the town of Kerynia.

The Cypriot authorities consider all flights to Ercan illegal and protest to authorities such as Eurocontrol over any submitted flight plans. There is standard border control at the airport, but since this is not considered an official entry point the crossing of travellers to southern Cyprus through the UN controlled green zone may depend on ongoing political circumstances.

The TRNC authorities recently granted a contract to Turkey’s Ta?yap? Construction to restructure Ercan, spending EUR350 million on building a new terminal, parking spaces and other amenities, aiming to increase annual passenger capacity to five million people.

All such cases indicate how with these airports, situations on the ground and air are often extremely fluid. While international bodies such as ICAO and ACI can advise authorities and airlines and suggest best practice, it appears the final word over civil aviation issues in such jurisdictions depends on which de facto authorities hold their nerve.

While ICAO agrees and delivers standards, which states adopt into national regulations and legislation, it does not ensure these standards are met. “That’s the state’s responsibility as the legal entity involved,” said an ICAO spokesman. “We don’t decide on or consider any topic unless one of our states specifically brings it to the attention of one of our governance instruments. However we do audit states to review levels of compliance with some of our standards, notably in the safety and security areas.”

ACI Europe meanwhile does not advise airlines wanting to visit unrecognised territories, though it recognises the difficulties faced by airport operators in unrecognised jurisdictions. “The main difficulty is ensuring that airlines that they are trying to attract are reassured of the validity of setting up new routes,” said Robert O’Meara, spokesman for ACI Europe. “The fact that a jurisdiction may be unrecognised can add some hassle in terms of set-up.”

The process of establishing a route begins with bi-lateral negotiations between the governments of the countries involved. “If they can reach agreement, then that empowers an airline to set up routes, based on the agreement forged,” he added. “The detail in these agreements can be quite substantial, including number of flights per week, arrival/departure rights relating to specific airports, and the number of passengers per week.

ACI Europe also believes there are no major legal duties for airports that send flights to such jurisdictions. “Airports attract the airlines to fly to and from their facility, providing them with as much local data as possible,” said O’Meara. “But in terms of destinations, the airlines have to deal with that.”

Bilateral agreements involving unrecognised territories hold sway, he stressed. “It goes back to the whether the ministry of foreign affairs of the two countries involved in a negotiation, share the view in terms of what and who they recognise and whether they can reach an accord based on that,” said O’Meara. “After that, the rights to stop and refuel; deliver passengers; deliver and collect passengers and mail; the right to transport cargo; the rights to fly routes involving a third country; and ultimately, cabotage – are all defined in the ‘freedoms of the air’ as enshrined in international aviation law.”