VILNIUS - The cancellation of Latvian flagship airline airBaltic's routes from Vilnius has become a political issue after politicians were upset by a company employee's remarks about the Lithuanian economy.
Vilnius routes to Stockholm, Milan and Munich have been halted, angering Lithuanian Transport Minister Eligijus Masiulis.
Following comments from an airBaltic employee saying that the "Lithuanian economy is a catastrophe," Masiulis suggested that the cancellations were part of a long line of political moves by the Latvian state owned airline.
"I am surprised and even shocked at such statements about Lithuania coming from a company where the controlling stake belongs to the Latvian government, a company that is a long-time partner of the Vilnius International Airport. Such statements cannot be justified by any business interests that the company may have had," Masiulis said.
He asked Latvian ambassador, Hardijs Baumanis, to explain the situation. Baumanis replied that it was not the opinion of the company, but one employee. He added that the cancellations were part of the business strategy of the company.
The head of airBaltic's Lithuanian operations, Tadas Vizgirda, affirmed the ambassador's statements.
"It is pure economics 's there were lower and lower numbers. I heard comments from the Minister of Transport saying that this is political, but it's not true 's we look three months down the track," Vizgirda told The Baltic Times about the falling demand for the routes.
"During the summer period we see the peak of when it comes 's a wave of tourists incoming and Lithuanians going elsewhere, corporate travel too 's these have all gone down. This really affects Stockholm when business travel goes down 's also for Milan and Munich, the ski season is over 's this is the main reason behind this. We can't sustain direct flights to Vilnius, but this could change in the future based on demand and economics."
Alongside the cancellations, airBaltic has announced it will add more flights to its new Palanga-Riga route, which it started in April, with two more flights per week starting June 1. It will also fly larger aircraft on its Vilnius-Riga route to create more transit through its main hub in Riga.
Vizgirda applauded the move by Vilnius International Airport to drop fees for airlines using the airport.
"It is the right decision [to drop fees] 's it should have happened years ago. It's a hard task to stimulate this market that is on the decline, not just Lithuania, but also in Latvia. People are pointing the finger at airBaltic, but we are also making cancellations in Riga," he said. He said 70 percent of traffic through Riga is transfer.
Vizgirda said that Vilnius is still an important market and the company's primary airport in Lithuania.
AirBaltic currently operates eight flights a week between Riga and the Lithuanian resort town of Palanga.
The company said the new route has enabled Lithuanians from the western part of the country to access Western Europe.
"The greatest interest in the new flight currently comes from passengers willing to travel between Palanga and Western Europe and the Mediterranean region," airBaltic said in a press release.
Passengers will fly aboard a Fokker 50 airplane with a 45-minute flight time. A one-way ticket will cost around 25 lats (35.70 euros).
AirBaltic currently operates six daily flights on the Vilnius-Riga route. Starting from April 15, an additional flight will be operated by a bigger Boeing 737 instead of the current Fokker 50.