TOUCH AND GO: Lithuanian airports have now fully recovered from the economic downturn and are setting new records.
KLAIPEDA - Lithuanian airports are not yet major hubs like Copenhagen, Oslo or Stockholm, but the rampant upward trend in passenger traffic has been cheering Lithuanian airports in Vilnius, Kaunas and Palanga.
And there’s more excellent news: last year’s traffic at airports was the highest on record.
“The rapidly increasing passenger flow for the second year in a row shows that air transportation is being expanded very successfully in the country. During the winter season, 18 different airlines have regular flights from Lithuanian airports, and they enable [passengers] to reach 37 different European airports,” Lithuanian Transport and Communication Minister Eligijus Masiulis said recently.
According to data from the Statistic Department, a total of 2.7 million passengers passed through Lithuanian airports last year, a 17.9 percent hike compared to 2010.
It was only in December 2011 that the three airports saw a 34 percent increase in passenger flow compared to the same month a year before.
To break down the statistics, the bulk of the air travelers, 557,000 – or 20.7 percent of the total, to be exact – came from the United Kingdom or were UK-bound. In the ranking, Germany is the runner-up with 285,500 passengers, or 10.6 percent of the pie. It is followed by Latvia, Denmark and Ireland, at 8.8 percent, 6.6 percent and 6.6 percent of all the 2011 passenger volume respectively.
In comparison with 2010, the most rapid increase in the passenger flow was on flights to and from the UK, which were up 19.2 percent. This was followed by Latvia, Ireland and Germany, up 18.6 percent, 4.5 percent and 4.2 percent respectively.
Kaunas Airport reported two times more passengers in 2011 than in the pre-crisis year of 2008, though the flow last year compared to 2010 grew insignificantly. Meanwhile, Vilnius Airport saw the biggest amount of passenger traffic among other airports last year, up by 24.7 percent from 2010.
When it comes to freight and postal parcel transportation in 2011, a 11.1 percent increase in freight volume was reported in all the airports. However, in this sector, Kaunas has incurred a setback – a gap that was patched over by Vilnius Airport’s excellent performance.
The hike in incoming and outgoing passenger traffic, the minister says, shouldn’t only be attribuited to the signs of economic recovery, but, significantly, to the hefty financing of European Union structural funds.
“EU funds are crucial in improving the infrastructure of all the airports. Only renovated and well performing Lithuanian airports can succeed in attracting more new air carriers and increasing passenger flows,” Masiulis emphasizes.
Tomas Vaisvila, Vilnius Airport director, says “several serious large-scale” projects have been completed using EU financing recently.
“Without disrupting air traffic, last summer we reconstructed the cover of the airport’s two taxi runways, as well as the platform. Last year, we started the preparatory reconstruction works on the passenger terminal. Upon completion, we will upgrade the baggage check-in system for departing passengers, and will expand the baggage check-in area. That will allow our passengers to cut waiting time at registration desks, and make the whole arrival [process] a lot cozier,” Vaisvila says.
The airport is to launch the reconstruction of the airport fence this year. The concrete fence will be replaced with one made of airport-designed acoustic net and acoustic elements. This will decrease the levels of noise significantly, which has been a major complaint from inhabitants in the vicinity of Vilnius Airport.
By the end of 2013, having taken advantage of the EU support, Vilnius Aiport will have carried out six major infrastructural projects, the total value of which is approximately 200 million litas (57.1 million euros).
“In the ministry, we are gladdened by the fact that civil aviation, [in terms] of state transport expansion, has become one of the most important subjects. Undoubtedly EU assistance plays a crucial role in expanding the airports. However, it never comes easily, and the scope of it we have today is a result of common work between the ministry and the airports,” said Rimvydas Vastakas, vice-minister of the Ministry of Communications.
The passenger traffic at Vilnius Airport is on a steady upward trend since the previous year and seems set to keep up the increasing volume this year as well.
In January 2012, the airport set a new record for traffic in the first month of the year. The airport handled 129,300 passengers, which surpassed the January 2011 result by as much as 66 percent. Up to now, the best January result was achieved in 2008, when the number of passengers surged to 128,500. The numbers had been steadily decreasing until this year.
“It is an inspiring start of the year. We are hoping that the unstable economic situation in Europe will not interfere with the ambitious growth plans of Vilnius Airport and we will be pleased to have an even higher number of new routes and new airlines opening their bases at the airport,” Masiulis said about the results.
In 2011, Vilnius Airport handled a total of 1.7 million passengers, 24.7 percent more than in 2010. The number of flights rose 6.1 percent, while freight traffic boomed by as much as 9.2 percent.
Sandra Siauliene, spokeswoman for Vilnius Airport, says that the surge has been spurred by several factors.
“First, despite the caution [brought on by] the second-dip crisis due to the eurozone problems, the economy is showing more signs of recovery. To put it simply, more people are ready to get on a plane and fly, be it for holidays or for a visit of their family members in the most popular emigration destinations. Second, the airport has become attractive to many new air carriers because of its reconstruction and low airport [costs]. All this taken together has produced the record results,” Siauliene told The Baltic Times.
She says that the Moscow route, where traffic has nearly doubled, is among the trendiest destinations. Utair Aviation has been operating flights to Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport for 4 years, while Transaero Airlines started flights to Domodedovo Airport from December 2011. After an 8-year break, Aeroflot will connect Vilnius and Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow with daily flights from the end of March this year.
From the end of March 2012, Estonian Air will increase its flight schedule on the Vilnius-Tallinn route up to 24 flights a week.
The early morning flights from Vilnius to Tallinn are operated six times per week. Late evening flights from Tallinn to Vilnius are operated on the same days, with the exception of weekends, when Saturday flights are operated on Sundays instead.
In addition, Estonian Air will serve the Vilnius-Tallinn route with afternoon flights six times a week on every day except Saturday.
Siauliene says the expansion of direct flights to Italy last year turned up extremely good results in January this year: compared to January 2011, passenger traffic to Rome skyrocketed by as many as five-and-half times, while the passenger flow to Milan increased three-fold. Two low-cost airlines, Wizz Air and Ryanair, operate flights to Rome and Milan.
The so-called business routes from Vilnius Airport to Helsinki, Kiev, Warsaw and Vienna, the airport spokeswoman claims, retained their popularity – they all maintained a stable growth rate of 10 percent or more. The Frankfurt route showed an extremely good result: passenger numbers have nearly doubled.
“We are hoping to keep up the pace this year as well; we are [considering] introducing three new air carriers from Vilnius soon. First, Iceland Express is to start flights to Reykjavik, Aeroflot will resume flights to Moscow, and Israeli Sandor is about to fly to Tel Aviv,” Siauliene told The Baltic Times.
She said the administration of Vilnius Airport is involved in negotiations with one more carrier, but did not want to elaborate on the possible deal until there were some more “tangible results.”
ACI Europe, a European agency monitoring air traffic volume, has listed Vilnius Airport among the European airports with the most rapidly growing passenger flow last year.
The increasing flow will likely be augmented by the large travel organizer, Novaturas, which plans to carry a part of its Latvian and Estonian holiday makers to major Southern holiday destinations in transit through Vilnius Airport.
It is estimated that Vilnius Airport will handle about 16 thousand transit passengers this year. They, along with Lithuanian vacationers, will fly south on 88 extra flights.
“In our recently introduced travel season [schedule] for this year, we are to take on six new travel routes, which will be performed with a stop-over in Vilnius. I think we will be the first travel organizer in Europe to have employed transit flights. I believe all will benefit from this as Vilnius Airport will handle a much larger flow of passengers and our partners from Small Planet Airlines will considerably expand their supply of travel itineraries,” Linas Aldonis, Novaturas director general, is quoted as saying on Novaturas website.
Kaunas Airport, which has been developing extremely rapidly after Irish budget carrier Ryanair set up a hub in Kaunas in mid-2010, saw numbers begin to stagnate last year. Thus, the passenger flow went up only 8 percent in Kaunas Airport last year, compared to the 20 percent surge in passenger traffic at Vilnius Airport.
Disappointingly, volumes of cargo air transportation went down significantly in Kaunas last year, from 4.49 million tons in 2010 to 3.79 million tons in 2011.
“Despite the setback, we consider the year 2011 to be very good for the airport. As for the lower numbers in cargo transportation, they are due to the lingering uncertainties in Lithuanian and foreign markets. A big Chinese air cargo carrier that had set up its transit logistic base in Kaunas Airport, has, unfortunately, decided to stop its operations due to the gloomy economic outlook in the transport sector. We have been told, however, the Chinese are going to resume their operations when the economy starts doing better. Their pullback has certainly trimmed the numbers,” Jurate Baltrusaityte, head of Commerce Department at Kaunas Aiport, told The Baltic Times.
In spite of the withdrawal, she says the presence of the Chinese cargo carrier has created lots of added value for the airport as many logistics companies, the former clients of the Chinese carrier, continue to use it.
Baltrusaityte noted that, though the last year was “very good”, the rapid expansion of flights from Vilnius Airport has prompted a slowdown in the growth of passenger traffic at Kaunas Airport.
“Especially after the budget carriers Ryanair and Wizzair revved up their flights from Vilnius. Until their appearance in the market, London-bound air passengers had used only our airport. However, with the Ryanair flights to London from Vilnius available, the UK-bound traveler flow has been set off,” Baltrusaityte said.
However, there is some really good news for Kaunas Airport ahead.
Ryanair has announced plans to set up an aircraft maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) unit in Kaunas Airport to support its Boeing 737-800 fleet.
The letter of intent was signed by Ryanair’s Director of Engineering Michael Hickey and Lithuania’s Minister of Economy Rimantas Zylius.
Ryanair intends to hire up to 60 specialists, and an investment of 3.5 million euros is planned into the 3,500 square-meter facility at Kaunas airport.
Hickey said that Kaunas Airport had appeared more attractive than many other airports in Europe in terms of business expansion and investment. Ryanair’s other two MRO centers are based in the UK and Germany.
Starting 2012, Russian airline IrAero started 80-minute flights on a Canadian 50 seater CRJ-200 to Moscow.
Flights to Moscow will be operated four days a week; the plane will depart from Kaunas at 6:20 am and will return to Kaunas at 23:05 pm.
Two new routes from Kaunas Airport will be operated by Ryanair starting from the beginning of May. The first route to Malta will operate twice a week, whereas the inaugural flight to Pafos, in Cyprus, will start in early-May with one weekly flight on Wednesdays.
“Two new routes joining the summer season route network with the flights to the Greek Islands Kos and Rhodes, as well as Spanish routes of Alicante and Mallorca will let Lithuanians plan their summer vacations,” says Kaunas Airport Director Arijandas Sliupas.
Among Kaunas Airport’s new air destinations is Reykjavik, to which Icelandic carrier WOW air will start flying from mid-June. The airline will operate a 168-seat Airbus A320-200 on the route. The flights will be operated once a week, on Mondays.
“This destination with WOW air is good news for those who want to discover this distant country and its magnificent nature. Adding Reykjavik to Kaunas flight map we have a total of 24 destinations to choose from for our passengers,” says Baltrusaityte.
Palanga Airport, which currently hosts three airlines, airBaltic, SAS and Norway’s Air Shuttle, with flights to Riga, Copenhagen and Oslo respectively, is looking to lure more carriers for summer season.
“I’ve just returned back from the ReizenHamburg fair in Hamburg, where I met representatives of several air carriers interested in operating flights from Palanga. We are to continue the negotiations, expecting the best outcome,” Jolanta Juceviciute, Palanga Aiport director, told The Baltic Times.
Having completed reconstruction, the airport also boasted a record number of passengers in 2011.
Palanga municipality, which is looking to nail down a budget carrier-operated route to London, is currently negotiating with other municipalities in the region to cough up 300,000 litas to serve as a guarantee for Ryanair to offset possible losses due to the chance of insufficient passenger traffic for the large carrier.
Last in the line to break into the industry is Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas, who has long been interested in the idea of establishing a Vilnius airline that is partially operated by Vilnius municipality.
In his Facebook account, the eccentric head of the Lithuanian capital announced that Vilnius is ready for the challenge.
“I suggest calling the would-be airline airLituanica,” Zuokas posted in a comment, triggering an avalanche of pros and cons.