Riga: The crossroads of The Baltic

Posted: 16 March 2005 | Dzintars Pomers CEO, Riga International Airport and Governing Board Member, ACI World | No comments yet

The wave of EU accession that has swept Riga International Airport into its position of enviable growth has not been secured complacently, but with constant development, careful planning and the continual innovation necessary to move on from its Soviet heritage, Riga Airport CEO Dzintars Pomers writes.

The wave of EU accession that has swept Riga International Airport into its position of enviable growth has not been secured complacently, but with constant development, careful planning and the continual innovation necessary to move on from its Soviet heritage, Riga Airport CEO Dzintars Pomers writes.

In 2004 the number of passengers at Riga International Airport (RIA) increased by 49%, exceeding one million for the first time, whilst the number of handled flights grew by 40%. Fifteen years ago Riga could not even be spotted on a map of European international flights, but today few airports in Europe can boast as dynamic a development as RIA. The accession of Latvia to the European Union in 2004 is the main reason for growing interest both in Latvia and the capital, Riga.

During the 20th Century Latvian aviation, like the country itself, experienced a number of fateful turning points. This former province of Russia, which won independence after the 1st World War, established a small air force and civil aviation, but lost everything due to the Soviet occupation in the summer of 1940. Independence was regained in August 1991. RIA was built in its present location in October 1974, remaining unknown to the outside world and operating as a local airport within the former USSR.

The capital of Latvia developed historically into the regional centre of the Baltics. It has been the intersection of major land and sea routes since long ago. Nowadays the number of air routes keeps increasing. Riga is the biggest city of the Baltic states and in 2004 RIA handled the largest number of air passengers in its region.

The number of passengers has tripled since 1993. Copenhagen, London, Helsinki, Prague, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Moscow, Berlin and Vienna routes served the largest number of passengers in 2004. Currently 12 carriers including Air Baltic, Aeroflot, Austrian Airlines, British Airways, Czech Airlines, easyJet, Finnair, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Ryanair and Uzbekistan Airways operate 30 regular air routes from Europe, Asia and North America to Riga.

Dealing with change

In 1991 very few people in Latvia had a clear idea of work under the conditions of a market economy. What the airport needed first was open-minded people capable of learning in no time. When the management of the airport was established, the first capital investments were channelled into staff training at the airports of Europe and the USA. The ACI supported our efforts and Riga airport was admitted into ACI membership in 1992. To transform the airport, people themselves had to change. Different projects were completed, making us forget the Soviet inheritance.

Since autumn 1991 the provision of high quality service has been our first priority. Besides, we consider that airport development and modernisation should be at least one step ahead of passenger growth. Therefore RIA has invested in the implementation of several major modernisation and extension projects to enable us to provide airlines and passengers with the expected quality of service. Everything we have achieved has been done with the purpose of taking care of passengers’ convenience, so that passengers would feel at home in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. The better the impression the airport creates, the more comfortable passengers feel while travelling.

Nothing, except history, remains from the former airport of 1974. Today there is a new runway, runway lighting system and terminal. The location of the terminal has remained the same, but the old building has been dismantled, reconstructed and expanded considerably at several stages. The reconstruction model did not affect passenger convenience and passed almost unnoticed by passengers, who afterwards appreciated the spectacular change to the airport’s image, which is said to be very pleasing to the eye.


The geometry of the current terminal facade differs from the one associated with Riga Airport until now. The glazed rhombic prisms laid in various planes encircle the new constructions. The facades resemble crystalline ice compositions, arousing a northern atmosphere, with the refraction of light and play of reflections enhanced by the sharpness and glitter of the metallic lines. A harmony of grey and blue colours is dominant in the interior. Spacious shopping halls, bars and cafes fit well in the new airport interior and are constructed from the elements of glass, metal and natural materials, like wood, stone and others, to form RIA’s image of today.

The main idea of the new design was to construct spacious and, most importantly, transparent rooms to make passengers feel more free and safe. Rooms without transparent walls do not exist at the terminal today. Besides, as a result of discussions amongst the designers and airport staff the most complicated problem of any new airport design was solved successfully, and an optimum balance among architectural, functional and commercial aspects was reached.

The reconstruction of our airport gained the Award of the Year for the best performance in Latvia’s architecture and won first place in The Best Reconstruction of the Year competition organised by the Latvian Builders Association. Everything constructed at the airport is the best in Latvia. In the future services will be further improved by considering expectations of our passengers and guests, who have completed questionnaires available at special stands in the terminal. We look forward to receiving comments on the airport tour programme and the art exhibitions at the airport.

Accession preparations

A year ago, the frequently asked question was: “How do you prepare for accession to the European Union?” The answer was as open ended as the question. It would have been too late to start the preparations for the EU a month or two before accession. We have in fact been preparing for the EU for several years. All of the processes at the airport, including security control, comply with EU requirements. Screening of 100% of passenger baggage was introduced beforehand using the most up-to-date equipment produced by Heimann. The automatic baggage screening equipment has a capacity of processing 1200 baggage units per hour. Accordingly, two systems provide security control of 2400 baggage units per hour. The installed equipment, without a doubt, ensures security control quality fully compliant with the EU requirements in the field of aviation security.

Furthermore, due to our passenger handling capacity reserve, on 1 May 2004 – the day of accession to the EU – all we needed were new signs at the passport control for departures and arrivals, to guide EU passengers and other travellers. However, we have also had to consider that in a couple of years Latvia will join the Schengen countries. Schengen passengers will have to be separated from others, therefore we have started preparations well in advance by commencing a terminal extension project, which entails construction of a new building next to the present terminal. Passengers will be able to enter this building at the end of 2005. The terminal area will be extended by 10000m2, facilitating an important capacity growth and enabling us to handle more passengers, even if the number of passengers will increase by 50% or more this year.

The statistics at the beginning of 2005 show an even more rapid increase rate. The next project RIA will prepare to implement is the extension of the runway. For the time being further development plans are being worked out at a conceptual stage and technical design will commence in the near future.

Rewarding travel and service

RIA is one of the few airports in Eastern Europe with a Quality Management System established and maintained according to ISO 9001 requirements, evidenced by a British Standards Institute certificate. Both internal and external auditors regularly audit and assess the system ensuring continuous operation and efficiency. Also, as passengers are our top priority, we are always alert to their requirements, facilitating handling upon arrival and departure. Riga is also one of the European airports that have introduced a passenger loyalty programme, N.O.V.A. (Novation – Organisation – Values – Abilities) to favour our passengers, although it does not bring the airport any extra profit. However, it is important, because the programme enables the airport to keep in touch with passengers regularly and not only while travelling.

The aim of RIA is not to become one of the European hubs, but to be among the best and our efforts have been appreciated. In 2004 Riga International Airport won the Airport Marketing Award in the ‘up to 5 million passengers’ airport category at the annual Routes conference, the major aviation forum, in Madrid. The winner of the award is the airport the most airline representatives have voted for. Finnair and Lufthansa have ranked Riga Airport number one in terms of high service quality and flight handling punctuality several times during the last two years.

A bright future

Accession to the EU has broadened the economic area of the Republic of Latvia, as its Eastern borders have now become the EU’s borders. Changes to the aviation industry cannot be treated in compete isolation from changes to domestic economics. RIA represents part of an aviation industry which is indicative of tendencies in economic development: this indication is very favourable for Latvia. No other branches of the domestic economy face a comparable growth rate.

Riga and Latvia also offers opportunities for tourism, which have not yet been explored to their full potential. You may have travelled all over the world, but have you been to Latvia? Welcome to Latvia! If you do not manage this year, you should definitely visit in spring 2006, when Riga will host the World Hockey Championship.

Dzintars Pomers

Dzintars Pomers has been President and CEO of Riga International Airport since 1992, before which he held various positions at the Ministry of Transport of Latvia. He is also currently a member of the ACI World Governing Board and the LATO (Latvian Atlantic Treaty Organisation) Board.

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