RIGA - Travel to and from the Latvian capital changed dramatically this week, when Ryanair landed at Riga International Airport, where CEO Michael O'Leary announced that the discount Irish airline would launch three regular routes from the Latvian capital beginning Oct. 31.
If the routes - to London, Frankfurt and Tampere, Finland - are successful, O'Leary said, more would follow to Brussels, Rome, Barcelona, Stockholm and other cities.
And as is the airline's practice, it will fly to smaller, lesser used airports that tend to be further away from the cities.
O'Leary even listed the ticket prices for the three routes (one way to Riga): London (3.99 pounds sterling), Franfurt (7.99 euros) and Tampere (4.99 euros).
Prices do not include airport taxes, and tickets will only be sold on the Internet by credit card.
Still, the low prices would remain until spring 2005, when the average price would increase from 10 - 20 euros.
The Ryanair CEO admitted that the airline would not earn a profit from its Riga routes, but he stressed that the company was here for the long-term.
Riga is the first East European city the airline will fly to, which was chosen over Tallinn and Vilnius, according to O'Leary, because of the government's willingness to cooperate.
Most of the credit for the effort in enticing Ryanair belongs to Deputy Prime Minister Ainars Slesers, who last week promised "a revolution in the airline industry" and said that more than one discount airline was likely to start flights to Riga. The minister mentioned EasyJet as a likely candidate.
Slesers, who is also acting transport minister, also announced last week that the government had decided to drop the passenger departure tax of 7 lats (10.5 euros) starting Nov. 1 this year at Riga International Airport. The tax has been used to finance the development of the airport's terminals, and its removal should lead to a drop in ticket prices.
The goal, he said, was to double passenger turnover next year to 2 million in an effort to become the central airline hub in the Baltics. To do this, he explained the airport planned to adopt a progressive discount system for airlines handling large numbers of passengers.
As Riga International Airport head Dzintars Pomers explained on July 26, if an airline handled 250,000 passengers a year, then it would have to pay only around 3 lats [per passenger] – "which is the cheapest price in Europe."
Slesers added that if an airline handled 50,000 passengers a year, it would receive first-level discounts, if it carried 100,000 - second level discounts, and so on.
This year Riga International Airport is expected to handle over 1 million passengers, compared with 700,000 last year. Over the first half of the year the airport handled 432,957 passengers.
Initially airport management was skeptical about plans to cut its tax revenues. Pomers had said that he was against it, while Finance Minister Oskars Spurdzins voiced concern that the airport would have troubles returning debts if it lost revenues, meaning the state would have to cover any shortfalls.
Still, airliners applauded the move.
British Airways representative Tom Anderson said that dumping the outbound passenger tax was a move to be "congratulated," as ticket prices would eventually drop.
The tax slash comes on the heels of other cuts, as the government earlier decided to reduce the fee for planes landing at Riga International Airport by 30 percent as of June 1 this year.
The ultimate goal, said the transport minister, was to have 5 million – 6 million passengers at Riga International Airport by the year 2010.