RIGA - A debate on the future role of Riga's airport emerged last week, as a leading government official and the airport's boss disputed the potential of Riga International Airport to become a regional transit hub.
Deputy Prime Minister Einars Slesers, who is temporarily serving as transport minister, last week proposed that Riga's airport work toward becoming a major hub in northeastern Europe by attracting low-cost airlines.
In Slesers' opinion, the air industry is one of the few that is actually prepared for EU accession, but both the Transport Ministry and business officials need to develop a long-term strategy that will allow Riga International Airport to remain competitive in the common market.
Slesers said that the airport should begin attracting low-cost airlines and implement a system of discounts for those airlines that bring in the most passengers to Riga. Riga International Airport serves only 700,000 passengers, while it has the capacity to handle some 2 million, he said.
"We need it so that people can fly anywhere in Europe for 50 euros," said the deputy prime minister, who is responsible for attracting strategic investment. "And we'll do everything so that it happens."
Riga International Airport officials, however, see the situation differently.
Dzintars Pommers, president of Riga International Airport, said the airport had little hope of becoming a regional transit hub. He said the only transit air traffic through Riga would be to and from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Pommers pointed out that one of the factors preventing Riga from becoming a genuine transit hub was the difficulty with which Russians obtain visas to Latvia. Until this is cleared up, "there would be no reason for transit flights from Moscow," he said.
What's more, though a small number of transit flights from Ukraine and Belarus currently go through Riga on their way to Scandinavian countries, these stopovers may decrease in the future with an increase in direct flights between the destinations.
"We used to think that Riga could be a large aviation center, but this is unfortunately not true," said the head of Latvia's only international airport.
Pommers also said that the arrival of discount airlines was likely to squeeze out quality airlines such as British Airways.
But Slesers claimed that discount airlines were the future of air travel in Europe.
"Ryanair is currently the third airline in Europe after British Airways and Lufthansa. And experts say that Ryanair will take first place within a year. This means changes in the pricing policies in the air industry are imminent," said Slesers.
Pommers, however, blasted the Irish airline in a recent interview with Kommersant Baltic, saying Ryanair had a bad reputation in the industry for dictating its conditions to airports.
In terms of cargo, he said that there were relatively few companies in Riga requiring cargo shipment services and that most of the cargo handled at the airport comes from DHL or TNT express mail services.
Pommers did, however, admit that cargo handling could be developed and stated that plans to extend the runway for this purpose using EU funds were already in the pipelines.
And even though he was only temporarily filling in at the Transport Ministry, Slesers was confident that Latvia's First Party, which he leads and is part of the minority coalition, is strong enough to see to it that his vision for Riga International Airport is carried out.
He ordered that the ministry prepare a plan for the airport's development in a month's time so that the government could discuss it at its weekly meeting.
Riga's airport posted a turnover of 9 million last year (13.4 million euros), up 8 percent, while the number of passengers jumped 12.4 percent.