VILNIUS - It doesn't take a frequent flyer to know that an airport provides a foreigner with a first and often lasting impression of a new country.
With this maxim in mind, the airports of the Baltic capitals have embarked on ambitious projects to expand and update their facilities so that air travel to Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius is not only safe and effective but modern and comfortable as well.
Yet in spite of the common resolve Baltic airports have shown for expansion, each has pursued a distinctly different long-term strategy for modernization.
Arguably the most aggressive expansion projects have been implemented at Riga International Airport (RIX), the airport serving Latvia's capital city and, by extension, most of the country. Five years ago, RIX underwent an extensive terminal extension and renovations of cargo facilities, transforming it into a European-standard facility.
In spite of this facelift, the cost of which RIX management refused to disclose, there are more plans in the works. With a massive 23 percent increase in passenger traffic in 2003, RIX's top brass are planning the construction of a new terminal. A construction tender for the project will be offered within the next few months.
"I can't say when the expansion will be completed, because we're in a constant state of expansion," said airport director Dzintars Pomers.
Controversially, the new terminal at RIX will most likely be used for arrivals and departures for destinations outside the Schengen zone of free travel, which the Baltic states are slated to join in 2007.
While plans are on the table for a new terminal to be constructed at VNO, Vilnius' airport, management there view Riga's decision to limit its new building to non-Schengen services as folly.
"It seems pretty nationalistic to me," said Mindaugas Ivanauskas, VNO director. "If we look at it from a pragmatic standpoint, there are only two non-Schengen routes that arrive at VNO-one from Kiev and one from Moscow. So if 90 percent of your traffic arrives from the Schengen zone and 10 percent from outside the Schengen zone, why would you dedicate an entire terminal to the non-Schengen traffic?"
Colleagues in Tallinn were equally skeptical of the necessity for a dedicated separate terminal for non-Schengen arrivals.
"While we are planning for full separation of Schengen and non-Schengen passengers in two years' time, we think it will be more efficient to do this in one single terminal," said Eduard Toor, marketing director at TLL, Tallinn's airport.
TLL underwent a comprehensive renovation that was completed in 2000.
"In this specific case, I'd have to agree with Vilnius. It all depends on budget: If you have a sufficient budget to construct a non-Schengen terminal, you'll do it, but I don't think it's efficient," Toor said.
As RIX travels down a solitary path of passenger separation, management is nonetheless pleased with its decision to invest a large amount of money in the physical appearance of the airport. "Aesthetics are very important. Perhaps aesthetics don't make a big difference for local clients, but our policy has been to attract business traffic, and for that we need a quality terminal," said Pomers.
While TLL has paid an equally large amount of meticulous attention to appearance-almost every decorating detail from floor to ceiling was changed in the most recent renovations-the Stalinist aesthetics of VNO continue to remind travelers of an era not exactly synonymous with comfort and modernism.
"It's mostly a historical question-RIX was built in 1976, TLL in 1980, while VNO was built in 1954. It's much more difficult to change construction that's that much older," said Ivanauskas.
Nonetheless, there are signs of thawing in the stern face VNO presents to visitors. An architectural competition to change the facade of the airport was recently held, and construction is set to begin in the near future.
VNO's status as the ugly duckling of the Baltic airports appears hardly to faze management.
"Safety procedures and passenger services meet all international standards, and passenger traffic is up," Ivanauskas said.