East meets west

Riga Airport

Thomas Torsten-Meyer reports from Riga where the small airport and national carrier have imported western European standards to a former eastern bloc infrastructure but have also included an enviable reputation for punctuality.

Riga Airport“Due to a strike on Wednesday, 9 September, all Lufthansa flights to Riga Airport will be cancelled. Passengers are kindly requested to contact the airline.” I guess this information is nothing new – just another organised strike by the German Pilots Association. This sentence was still in my mind after looking for an acceptable time and flight to visit Riga airport and assess its national carrier airBaltic.

Before my visit I had been informed that Riga has carried out a substantial investment into the development of the airport. This had significantly improved the infrastructure of the airfield and safety (CAT II runway, firefighting depot, taxiways). It has also improved the environment added capacity and security and had a strong knock-on effect for the airport’s stronger competitiveness within the Latvian economy. “Comfort for the passengers with better quality services,” was the main message from Andris Liepiņš, Chairman of the Board of Riga International Airport. Which is an ambitious plan for a small airport in North Eastern Europe in the heart of the Baltic region.

There has now been an announcement concerning the second terminal development. When the construction of the new pier is finished, Riga airport will have 19 new boarding gates with three air bridges, new commercial areas and comfortable passenger lounges, greatly boosting the airport capacity. The construction works are scheduled to be finished by the autumn of 2016.

The current capacity of the terminal provides quality services to 3.5 million passengers per year. The estimated number of passengers to be handled by the airport per year is already expected to reach five million. At this level and with anticipated further growth, the airport had to expand in order to provide adequate handling to airlines and comfortable quality services to passengers.

The expansion of the terminal is crucial for the improvement of Riga International Airport within Europe in general and among the Eastern European and Scandinavian countries in particular. The expansion is an essential precondition for attracting new carriers and their operations to Riga Airport, as well as boosting the business of the airlines currently operating, and thus facilitating the development of Riga Airport as the leading airport in the Baltic.

I remember a very similar message 20 years ago, after Latvia separated from the former Soviet Union. The former CEO Dzintars Pomers, and his technical colleague, Andis Damlics, decided to initiate a new operating concept for Riga airport.

But it is easy to underestimate the task of achieving western airport standards and design for a new take off. ACI Europe and especially the operations department at Munich airport were rather busy showing Riga airport what it entails and what western airports normally provide to achieve a so-called ICAO-standard facility.

This was reason enough for myself to want to see whether our hints, tips, information, support and comments 20 years ago had assisted the new airport in achieving its goal of becoming the leading airport in the Baltic region.

So I asked airBaltic to organize a flight from Munich to Riga. The carrier was founded in 1995 and started with one SAS SAAB 340. The airline is the national carrier and the primary shareholder is the Latvian state with 99.8 %. Now airBaltic has become a so called “Hybrid Airline”, taking the best practices from the traditional airline and the low cost carriers. airBaltic’s top priorities are safety, punctuality and service. It is still providing a full business class service. This hybrid airline approach strips its offer to the bare minimum, offering basic economy class tickets with the option of adding additional services. This includes increased baggage allowance, meals on board and seat reservations. Based on this model, airBaltic is able to serve a wide variety of customers.

Riga is the Hub airport for airBaltic. Presently airBaltic transports 3 million passengers per year to 60 destinations, with thirteen B 737-300/500, and 12 Bombardier Q 400 Next-Generation Aircraft. Through airBaltic’s wide network of code-share partners, travelers from the Baltic regions can take advantage of connections to destinations around the world. airBaltic also offers new direct flights from Tallinn and Vilnius.

airBaltic has been ranked No 1 globally for punctuality in 2014. Martin Gauss, CEO of airBaltic explains: “Our customers can rely on a consistently punctual service. We are all very proud that our team at airBaltic achieved an excellent result of 94.9 % for flights linking Riga with destinations in Europe, the Middle East and Russia. This equates to 9 airBaltic aircraft out of 10 arriving on time.

airBaltic is followed in the global ranking by Hawaiian Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Iberia and Norwegian Air Shuttle. It was the first airline in Europe to introduce an on-time arrival guarantee in early 2009. This assurance gives the carrier’s passengers peace of mind and makes the rare delays less inconvenient.

The next important step for airBaltic is the aircraft exchange process. airBaltic’s current purchase order is for 13 Bombardier CS 300 aircraft to replace the Q 400.

But it is not an “old fashioned” carrier in any sense of the word. In 2012 Air-Baltic was already ranked, by Airline trends, amongst the Top 10 airlines globally for innovation.

Without doubt I will be visiting Riga and the Baltic again. With a flight time of 2h 20min from MUC to RIX, this is not a problem for me. I would also like to say that the cabin crew were excellent. By the way, the Jurmala coast line that runs along the Baltic Sea is absolutely fantastic. I am planning a trip as a tourist to the Baltics next year. I might just take my bike with me!

Thomas Torsten-Meyer is former senior vice president for operations at Munich Airport and is a member of the Airport Focus editorial board.

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