As a country, Latvia is an attractive destination for its stunning architecture, diverse birdlife and countless rivers and waterfalls. The country is also a powerful contender in aviation with three notable international airports along with a prominent flag carrier airline and a key destination for aerial freight traffic in the Baltic region. The Civil Aviation Agency of Latvia regulates the country’s aviation safety and security measures, including the management of all airport facilities along with Latvian air space.
Latvia is also a key destination for aerial freight traffic in the Baltic region. Cargo exports alone, for instance, generate $18.3bn in revenue. The top five countries that receive freight traffic from Latvia include Afghanistan, Lithuania, Russia, Germany and Sweden. Furthermore, Latvia encourages a lax policy on cargo trade facilitation that facilitates freighter activity.
Operational since 1973 this airport was constructed to replace the ageing Spilve Airport, which had been in use since as early as the 1910s. Located 13km west of the Latvian capital, Riga International is the country’s largest and most active airport (over 7 million passengers, 2019) counting three terminals and acting as the base of Latvia’s national airline – airBaltic, and home to the head office of the Latvian Aviation Agency.
Starting in 2006, the airport saw its first of several expansion projects that significantly improved facilities and passenger capacity; a new terminal was constructed, maintenance and repair facilities upgraded, the runway was extended by 650m for a total of 3,200m, along with improving the drainage network. Furthermore, the reconstruction of the runway’s lighting system eased take-off and landing procedures in dark and/or poor weather conditions. Having grown capable of accommodating large commercial aircrafts such as A340 and 777s, by 2008 the airport received international status.
Aside from airBaltic, there are many international airlines that frequent Riga International include Aeroloft, Ryanair, Turkish Airlines, and British Airways.
Another Latvian airport with military beginnings, Liepaja International, is located 60km from the Lithuanian border in the South East of the country, 5km from the city it is named after. It was passed on to civilian use in 1960 initially offering daily flights to Riga and several cities within the USSR.
In 2014 the airport was closed for a period of two years during which it underwent an extensive renovation that granted it international certification. Prior to this, the airport had been used by light aircraft from Russia, Denmark, Lithuania and Latvia. It has a single 2,002m concrete runway that is capable of accommodating large commercial fliers.
Constructed in 1939, Ventspils International airport was also a military base controlled by the Soviet Union until 1975, with the addition of a new runway, it was fit for civilian use.
In 1983, Latvian officials ceased the airport’s operations and it was dormant until 2000. Its absence proved a significant inconvenience for the region’s residents who were forced to travel over 200km to fly from Riga International. During the mid-90s local pressure along with Ventspils’s growing economic importance led the Latvian government to devise a renovation scheme in preparation for its reopening. While operations resumed upon the airport’s certification in 2000, further expansions came in the years 2003-4, when Ventspils International received a new terminal along with the addition of an aircraft fuel station.
Latvia’s international flag carrier airline, airBaltic was established in 1995 as a joint venture between Latvian and Scandinavian investors, with its main base at Riga International Airport.
In 2011, the airline was on the verge of collapse as a result of financial and political problems, it grew heavily indebted and was considering laying off a significant portion of staff until it was bailed out by the Latvian government.
Unfortunately, a similar scenario unfolded in 2020 with the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic and a sharp cut in bookings led to the airline reducing its staff by 250 employees.
“This is a hard, but necessary decision. We had a very positive start of this year in the first two months, but now we are facing extraordinary circumstances. We must do this now to be able to rehire people and be back on our growth path once the situation improves… right now, there is no option to continue as usual – flights need to be canceled, aircraft grounded, we see a sharp and unexpected decline in bookings. But we are certain that the situation will get back to normal.” explains Martin Gauss – airBaltic CEO
As the situation improved, the airline sought to hire back some of the employees insisting that they be vaccinated. By May 2021, a total of 73 crew members had returned to their posts at airBaltic.
Today the airline is equipped with a fleet of 26 A220-300 and conducts over 70 direct international flights to such destinations as Dubai, Copenhagen, Aberdeen and Nice.
The first private Latvian airline, RAF-Avia was established in 1990 but did not begin operations until a year later. It grew to be the biggest cargo airline in the Baltics, before adding passenger charter services in 1994. By 2015 the airline started offering commercial passenger flights using SAAB S340A(F) and S340B aircraft.
The airline specializes in the delivery of all types of cargo including radioactive and dangerous materials.
Initially named Latcharter, this airline was founded in 1992 with the goal to provide clients with holiday packages from Riga International. By 1996 it had grown to be the second-largest commercial Latvian airline.
In 2008, the airline rebranded adopting the name SmartLynx. Its current active fleet consists of 3 aircraft – two A320-200s and an A321-200. Furthermore, the airline operates two subsidiaries in Estonia and Malta.
SmartLynx currently provides flights between 6 destinations; Riga, Tallin, Tenerife and Ankara along with Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh. The company is also known for its crew training services that are conducted in the SmartLynx training center that specializes in familiarizing trainees with the Airbus A-320 aircraft.
Can it get better?
As the Covid-19 pandemic drifts to an end, Latvia is expected to make a full economic recovery with tourists flying into the country to enjoy the beautiful scenery and attractions along with profiting from the fact that the country is budget-friendly. While in a general sense Latvia maintains a healthy aviation sector, there is plenty of room for improvement. Notably, the Latvian marketplace presents ample opportunities for new airlines both in the passenger and cargo sector. Furthermore, with the exception of Riga International, Latvia should strive to increase the traffic in its airports, that whilst well equipped see moderate passenger numbers.