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RIX Marks the Spot for Expansion

By Amy Bryzgel. 27.08.2008

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  It is amazing to think that, if the timing is right, travelers can leave the city centre for Riga’s International Airport and be sitting at the gate, all checked in, just twenty minutes later. But is all that about to change?

 

What is soon to be the second-largest airport in Northern Europe is currently large in what it has to offer, but compact enough to be convenient and manageable. The Riga International Airport, or RIX, as it is known by its code, has been growing exponentially over the last several years. Not only is it an international hub for the Baltics, but it has also become somewhat of a gateway to the East, what with its direct flights to the Caucuses and Central Asia.

This year brought with it perhaps the most dramatic change for RIX since the 1990s: Latvia’s entry into the Schengen Agreement, which means that for passengers coming from other Schengen countries in Europe, no passport control is necessary. While Latvia officially became part of Schengen on the first day of 2008, it only became applicable to airport traffic as of March 30, when the flight schedules were updated. Now “Arrivals 1” services all those arriving from countries located in Schengen, while “Arrivals 2” is used for those from other areas.

It’s difficult to live in Riga and not be aware of the airport’s constant expansion. Billboards and advertisements remind us of new direct flights that are added to the airport’s destinations virtually every month. And it is not only the discount airlines, such as Ryan Air and Easy Jet, which offer cheap fares. Air Baltic’s e-desserts are internet-only fares, sometimes for as little as 2 Lats for a single flight, plus taxes. Fares out of RIX are by far the cheapest in the Baltics, and many Estonians and Lithuanians use Riga as their main airport, not only because of the price, but also because of the many destinations that can be reached directly from Riga. According to Krišjānis Peters, Chairman of the Board of the Riga International Airport Board of Directors, “statistics show that the number of passengers that pass through the Riga Airport each year is nearly the same as the number that pass through the Tallinn and Vilnius airports combined, which makes the Riga International airport the definite leader among the Baltic countries.”

While RIX serves mostly European destinations, some as close as Liepāja in Latvia and Stockholm in Sweden, one can also fly directly to such faraway places as Kazakstan and Uzbekistan in the East, or New York in the West. But more destinations are being added frequently; for example, three new direct flights will open in October to Dubai, Amsterdam and Tampere, Finland. Once the new runway is completed this November, it will be possible to open up the airport to more inter-continental flights. “There are already airlines that have expressed an interest in operating inter-continental flights to Riga, for example, to Thailand. We are already working with certain airlines to open a direct flight to and from the USA, but of course that will depend on the implementation of the non-visa regime. There is also interest from Japan. The challenge, with regard to all of these requests, is simply to keep them at pace with our infrastructure,” says Peters.

More flights mean more passengers, and RIX is well underway with plans to handle this increase. In June of next year, the airport will commence phase 5 and 6 of its development. Once complete, it will become the second largest airport in Northern Europe, after Copenhagen. The exponential expansion of the airport’s passengers is impressive, to say the least. In 2007 RIX handled 3.16 million passengers, which was 26.7 percent more than in 2006. According to statistics for the first half of this year, 1,659,185 passengers passed through the airport, a whopping 17.4 percent more than the same period last year. And where were all of these people going to? The majority of the total volume flew to London; the second most popular destination was Dublin. After phases 5 and 6 of the airport expansion, the complex will be able to handle a staggering 12 million passengers. In actuality, the airport is focused on a long-term plan that will enable the airport to handle up to 50 million passengers per year. That’s more than London Gatwick currently handles (approximately 30 million), and slightly less than London Heathrow (approximately 67 million).

As for the structural additions to RIX, phase 5 will include a new 510-meter long terminal with 23 gates. Phase 6 will include a new check-in terminal for departures, as well as a baggage-handling centre for arrivals. Andris Kronbergs, head of the architectural firm Arhis which is in charge of the development, had this to say about the design: “the project presents an integrated complex of airport structures providing a new architectural vision of form and style. It is characterized by simple, laconic lines, carefully considered functionality and interplay with the Latvian landscape and the characteristics of the environment.” Peters adds, “knowing that the airport is like a calling card for the country, it is important to tell people where they are arriving and from where they will depart.” In this sense, the airport expansion will serve another purpose – that of promoting Latvia as a tourist destination and travel gateway.

The development plans are not only geared toward expanding the buildings on the airport territory. Increasing access via both road and rail is being considered. Peters informed us that there will be a new rail station at the new terminal, which will be part of the Riga-Jurmala (Tukums) line, connecting the airport both with the capital and the seaside. Furthermore, the inroads to the airport will also be reconstructed, allowing for greater ease of access to Riga’s micro-regions, as well connection to the motorways in the direction of Lithuania and Estonia.

The improvements and expansions to the airport aim to provide passengers with the ultimate comfort and convenience. As Peters has stated, “the airport is the start of one’s journey, which is why it is important to have the possibility of the shortest and most convenient transfer distances.” As of this summer, the airport offers a “twilight check-in,” from 19:00-22:00 the night before one’s flight. Customers can check-in for the flight, receive their boarding passes, and check-in their bags, so that they can go directly through security the next day. This will conveniently serve transit passengers. Jānis Baļķens, Vice President of Riga International Airport, also adds that this is “a good solution for families traveling with children who usually have many items of luggage,” and is also useful for those without internet access, who cannot check-in online. Air Baltic is also offering its own special deal for those passengers connecting through Riga for flights between East and West, who don’t have same-day flight connections. Named the “stopover” package, it includes flight tickets, a one-night stay at the Reval Hotel Latvija and transfer by the Airport Express Shuttle Bus to and from the airport. Sample fares for a package from Russia (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad) via Riga to Western Europe would be €219, or if heading to Tel Aviv, Tbilisi, Baku or Yerevan from Scandinavia or Finland, the price of the package would be €359, plus airport taxes and surcharges.

“My vision,” says Peters, “is for the Riga airport to become a real competitor in Northern Europe. This will not be an easy task, of course, but we have all of the prerequisites to become one of the major players in Northern Europe, and we will no doubt successfully achieve that.”

The face of Riga is rapidly changing, with skyscrapers and modern buildings altering the city skyline every year. It is only logical that the gateway to the country changes along with its capital. Current visitors to Riga who come back to Latvia after several years may not recognize the airport, let alone the rest of the country, upon their re




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