SAS descends on western Lithuania

  • 2004-11-10
  • By Steven Paulikas
VILNIUS - In the Baltics' mad rush to attract new airlines after EU accession, all Lithuanian eyes have been fixed on Kaunas as the country's likely destination for low-cost carriers. As it turns out, they should have set their radar further west.

On Nov. 1, Scandinavian Airlines System inaugurated its new daily service from its hub in Copenhagen to Palanga Airport, located beside the Baltic Sea some 32 kilometers north of Klaipeda. The flights have redefined expectations for both the geographic distribution of an expanded air service to Lithuania and the types of carriers the country is likely to attract.

Compared with Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania has played the part of the ugly duckling in wooing carriers from Western Europe. After drawn-out speculation that Ryan Air would come to Kaunas' Karmelava Airport, both government and airport officials appeared unready to give the airline the deep concessions it is said to have demanded.

And while airBaltic set up shop at Vilnius Airport this summer, making that city its second hub after Riga, hopes that discount carriers would give a lift to regional airports have not yet materialized.

It was amid this background of speculation that SAS's Oct. 7 announcement of its new Lithuanian destination shocked observers, introducing the possibility that rescue for the country's secondary airports might come not from discount carriers, but from major mainstream airlines.

"SAS doesn't fly just anywhere, so this is a big affirmation of our strategic location," observed Leonas Kvietkauskas, director of Palanga Airport.

According to Kvietkauskas, SAS is a better fit both for his airport and for western Lithuania, which suffers from its location hundreds of kilometers away from Vilnius and Riga.

"This is a marked improvement in western Lithuania's transport connections," said Kvietkauskas, noting that most passengers on the route are connecting through Copenhagen to other destinations. Discount carriers fly mostly point-to-point routes, meaning passengers have the option of flying to only a handful of destinations.

SAS's flexible fleet size is another key advantage in its partnership with Palanga. SAS flies smaller, 48-seat CRJ 200LR aircraft on its routes.

"Airlines like Ryan Air need big runways to land their planes. I can't see a Boeing 747 landing here anytime soon," he said.

The first week of the service saw planes roughly half-full, a capacity that by industry standards bodes well for the future of the route.

"It never happens in aviation that planes are full on a brand new route," Kvietkauskas said.

While smaller carriers Air Lithuania and Swedline maintain long-standing routes from Palanga to destinations in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Germany, regional leaders have long bemoaned the absence of an airline with global connections.

"This new service doesn't just connect us to Copenhagen, it connects us to all of SAS's 60 destinations in Europe and even further," said Klaipeda's Mayor Rimantas Taraskevicius.

Taraskevicius argues that his city, Lithuania's second-largest recipient of foreign investment after Vilnius, is bound to become an even more attractive destination for international capital now that it is more easily reachable for businessmen.

Travelers to Klaipeda and surrounding key industrial towns such as Gargzdai were previously forced to endure an uncomfortable and time-wasting four-hour drive from Vilnius or Riga airports. There are also signs that SAS may only be the thin end of the wedge in bringing other traditional carriers interested in Palanga.

The municipality of Palanga has long hoped to capitalize on the city's reputation as one of the Soviet Union's premiere vacation destinations to bring in larger numbers of visitors from Russia.

"I can say that most probably a mainstream airline will begin Moscow-Palanga service this summer," said Kvietkauskas, who refused to name the carrier.

While passenger volume is almost universally expanding among the region's airports, the recent increase in interest is ensuring that Palanga will be no exception.

Volume for 2004 is forecast at 70,000, a significant increase on last year, while Kvietkauskas and his staff are hoping for a whopping 100,000 in 2005. Such a rise in air traffic at Palanga would be good news for the entire region.

"We've always said that Palanga airport is vital to Klaipeda as well. We hope that someday it will even change its name to Palanga-Klaipeda Airport," Taraskevicius said.