AIRPORTS - Border no more: countdown to Schengen

  • 2007-11-21
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

READY OR NOT: Massive investments have been made to some airports like the one in Vilnius (pictured) to make them Schengen compliant, but there's concern that Tallinn's won't be ready by the March 29 deadline.

Baltic airports are experiencing times of great change. Passenger flow has been skyrocketing since European Union accession, so much so that airports in the three capitals are all planning huge expansions to help cope with the extra passengers. These expansions are especially important as they provide the airports with the opportunity to adapt to upcoming Schengen zone membership.

While the large airports are struggling to cope with growing expectations, small airports in the region are experiencing the changing times even more acutely. In this week's Industry Insider, The Baltic Times looks into some of these issues and tries to discern what the future holds for Baltic airports.

RIGA - Baltic airports are preparing to take part in a historic event. The Baltic states are set to be fully integrated into the Schengen border free zone by March 2008 's a move that requires significant changes to the infrastructure of the three largest airports 's Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius 's to become a reality. But how close are they to being ready?

In a Nov. 15 vote, the European Parliament decided to support the accession of all three Baltic states 's along with six other states 's into the Schengen area, mirroring a Nov. 8 unanimous endorsement from the EU interior ministers. MEPs noted, however, that "there are shortcomings" in the preparedness of the nine states, the EUobserver reports. 

Each state, it would seem, suffers these shortcomings to varying degrees.

Riga Airport, the largest in the three Baltic states, is certainly ready for the transition. It has invested more than 500 million lats (711 million euros) in reconstruction partially aimed at bringing the airport in line with Schengen zone requirements (see story opposite page).

"This year Riga International Airport expressed its readiness to enter Schengen Agreement zone. All conditions are met and the airport is ready to split the passenger flow to Schengen and to non-Schengen zone countries," an airport representative said.

"It provides the monitoring of passenger movement and transportation on the apron heading to and from the aircrafts. It has also designed and equipped the border control cabins and the infrastructure around them according to all requirements for the passengers heading to countries which are not part of Schengen zone," he said.

Moreover, Riga Airport has fully trained its security staff to cope with the new security levels which will be imposed after accession into the Schengen zone.

Vilnius has also heavily invested in bringing its airport up to Schengen standards. The airport has recently opened a brand new terminal with a 130 million lita (37.65 million euro) price tag which is completely in line with the Schengen requirements.

"The passengers [from the] Schengen zone and [from] non-Schengen territories are absolutely separated in the new terminal," Arunas Marcinkevi-cius, spokesman for Vilnius International Airport, said.

Things are not looking quite so bright for the Tallinn International Airport. At the recent votes on Schengen membership, MEPs pointed specifically to the Tallinn Airport as a key area in need of improvement.

They said that the airport is still under construction and needs to more clearly separate Schengen and non-Schengen passengers. These problems were not, however, seen as bad enough to bar membership 's only requiring the country to give a series of follow-up reports on its progression toward fully meeting the requirements. 

The quest to join the Schengen zone has largely been a team effort for the three states.

The three Baltic states were unavoidably tied to each other when it came to accession into the Schengen zone. If one of the countries flagged when it came to meeting the requirements, then all would have suffered restrictions on the important border free agreement.

"We are constantly coordinating our work with that of Latvia and Estonia as we should not have any illusions that one of the Baltic countries will be accepted while the others will not. If performance of work is late in one of them, none of them will be accepted, as we are viewed as a single region," Lithuanian Interior Minister Gintaras Furmanavicius explained in a statement last year.

Total air passengers in 2006 (in thousands):

Riga: 2,493
Tallinn: 1,541
Vilnius: 1,451

Aircraft turnover in 2006:

Riga: 40,162
Tallinn: 33,989
Vilnius: 29,347

*Source: airports' annual statistical reports