RIGA - Coming after one of its best years ever, airBaltic, Latvia's national airline, unveiled its ambitious plans for 2004 last week, saying it intended to buy five new planes, launch five new routes and participate in Europe's open-skies program after EU accession in May.
Speaking at a Jan. 15 press conference, President Berthold Flick announced that the airline planned to buy four new Boeing 737s and one Fokker 50 and that the first Boeing was expected to arrive at the end of January and the next a month after that.
Flick said the purchase of the new planes, which will be financed on leasing terms, would allow airBaltic to more than double its capacity. The new Boeings, he added, will be used for flights to Copenhagen, Dublin, London and Amsterdam.
As a result of the purchase the company will have a total of 14 planes by the end of the year.
At present airBaltic has five Fokker 50 planes, three Avro RJ 70s and one Boeing 737, and Flick said that the company intended to phase out the Avros.
He also said the company planned to open five new routes this year, bringing the company's total number of destinations to 20. In March the airline will launch flights to Oslo and late in March to Dublin and London.
These will be followed by the appearance of more new routes, though Flick declined to say where.
Speaking of the open-skies treaty that is expected to develop in Europe, airBaltic's president said that the company was discussing the option of flying between European cities.
"Until now airBaltic was tied to Riga, but after May we will be allowed to work also elsewhere in Europe," said Flick, adding that there are a number of routes with large passenger turnover yet no direct flights.
Regarding pricing, the company president said that airfare would be reduced in 2004 and that one-way ticketing would be introduced on all routes (it was introduced on eight routes last year) except Moscow and Kiev, where the competition is regulated.
Two years ago any such price reduction would have been impossible, explained Flick, while today it is a necessity born out of changing market conditions.
"It is not easy for airBaltic, but there is no other option," he said, adding that the reductions would not occur overnight.
Flick predicted that competition at Riga International Airport would become considerably tougher since so-called low price air companies might soon begin flying to Riga.
"I am sure that low price air companies will definitely launch flights to Latvia, and it does not matter whether it happens today or tomorrow," said Flock, stressing that any such decision depended on certain members of government.
Still, Flick said he believed the very notion of low-price airlines, such as Ireland's Ryanair, would soon vanish from the market and the very aviation industry would change significantly.
Last year airBaltic serviced 336,000 passengers, up 28 percent compared with 2002.
AirBaltic was founded in 1995. The Latvian state holds 52.6 percent of the company shares, SAS 47.2 percent.