Aidas Laurinavičius, the director for commerce at Vilnius International Airport, is full of ideas for making the rapidly expanding airport even more attractive to passengers. A new terminal has recently opened. A special train now takes passengers from the airport to the railway station. Next year the airport hotel will be modernised, and passengers will be offered attractive new services. A separate VIP lounge will be available for businessmen.
As passenger flows through Vilnius Airport are increasing every year, you are planning new developments. How much can the airport grow and develop?
It was thought earlier that, with its present capacity, Vilnius Airport could serve 3.5 million passengers a year. After everything has been considered, it has turned out that the number could exceed five million passengers a year.
Now the question arises: is it possible to serve aircraft which bring in so many passengers, with the present runways? And there is another question: will there be enough space for parking if the number of passengers grows to five million a year?
Another issue is the main road leading to the city. With five million people arriving, it is sure to be congested.
Besides, flyLAL-Lithuanian Airlines wants to build its own terminal. There are many issues concerning this project which have to be clarified.
It is clear that more and more passengers are using the airport. In 1992 we had 310,000 passengers. In 2000 we had half a million, and in 2004 the number came to a million. Two years later 1.5 million passengers used Vilnius Airport, and last year the number was 1.7 million. The growth is very fast. Therefore, it is not surprising that this year we have become leaders, according to the pace of growth, among similar-size airports in Europe serving five million passengers a year.
What are the plans for the airport’s development next year?
We intend to extend the apron and the parking area, to modernise the hotel, and to increase the number of commercial outlets. We are looking for partners who want to establish a tourist information centre, which will also organise trips across the country.
We currently have two Business Lounges. We want to turn one of them into an Airport Lounge accessible to all airport passengers. Every passenger would be able to enjoy the exceptional surroundings and the services provided (internet, television, a bar, and so on). It would be an additional package for a fixed price. We also want to equip a more comfortable waiting area, with a press centre for important business clients. So we are not short of ideas for next year.
There are other airports operating in Lithuania. How do you intend to make the country popular in order to attract more passengers from abroad?
The three airports operating in Lithuania do not compete with each other, and we can work together to attract more passengers. Besides, Vilnius is Lithuania’s capital, which gives the airport more advantages and possibilities. On the other hand, Kaunas Airport is oriented to low-cost airlines and cargo.
Next year, European airport representatives will meet airline managers in Prague. We want to promote Vilnius together with Kaunas and Palanga airports. We want to show that we exist, and what we can offer.
What determines whether an airport is attractive or not?
Passengers fly to see the country, but not to see the airport. The best airport is one which can guarantee travellers safety and comfort. What is important for me and other passengers is that the aircraft lands safely, procedures are short, and we can reach the city as soon as possible.
Often passengers from other countries fly to Vilnius, rent a car at the airport and visit the Baltic States. Car rental companies have noticed that the number of these travellers is increasing. Several international car rental companies operate at the airport, which means that more and more people are using their services.
Besides, more and more people who used to go to Western Europe by bus are now choosing to travel by air. They are not put off any longer by prices.
One thing which makes our airport attractive is that two airlines are operating and competing here, Air Baltic and flyLAL-Lithuanian Airlines. They have a third of the market each, so they increase the passenger flows and try out new destinations.
How many passengers will the airport receive this year?
Our estimates are that Vilnius Airport will be used by more than two million passengers this year. The flows are increasing. Therefore, the development of the airport infrastructure is high on our priority list. Three new aircraft parking stands, as well as additional safety zones beside the runways, have been built.
Next year we will invest in second-category lights, which allow aircraft to land in worse visibility. It is often foggy over Vilnius Airport in the autumn, and our operations are disrupted. The new lights will enable the airport to operate in more complicated weather conditions. The design work will be completed this year, and we plan to install the new system next summer.
Several airlines have announced that they are withdrawing from airports in neighbouring countries. This is what has happened at Riga Airport, from which four companies are withdrawing. Aren’t you afraid of something similar happening here?
I’ve heard about that. The Austrian airline that is leaving Riga is still operating successfully at our airport, and so are several low-cost airlines. These are not a segment of the airport’s market. We cannot create exceptional conditions for any particular airline. Riga Airport is having problems with conditions for equal competition.
Perhaps new airlines which have not operated in the Lithuanian market are looking at Vilnius?
We’re working on this issue. We want to seek out airlines, and not sit and wait until someone discovers us. Like all companies, airlines count their costs, so in the present economic situation it is very important not to make mistakes. If seat occupancy is low, they have to terminate those flights.
Some flights are being cancelled from our airport too. Economic crises affect airports the world over, as people travel less. Not only we, but all other companies which provide services and operate from the airport, are affected. Well-established airlines are cautious where development is concerned.
Despite the economic crisis, you are expecting more passengers next year. Where does the optimism come from?
We are pinning our hopes on Vilnius as European Capital of Culture next year. It is estimated that about a million people will come to the events. We hope that many of them will pass through our airport. Even if the number comes to 50 per cent of the estimated flow, the airport will benefit considerably.
Nevertheless, in the present economic situation, the most important thing is to serve the same number of passengers as we do now, and not to lose them.
Vilnius Airport is in the city, which is a rare thing in capital cities. There are many houses around it. It is necessary to lengthen the runway, but problems have arisen. In your opinion, does an airport in a city mean more advantages or disadvantages?
In order to enable larger and more powerful aircraft to land, we wanted to lengthen the runway from 2.5 to three kilometers. Maybe aircraft would not land so often, but they would be larger.
The Ministry for the Environment, however, supported by residents who live close to the airport, would not let us. We are trying to convince residents that a longer runway would be important for them too.
Really, an airport should not be so close to the city centre. However, it was set up here seventy years ago. Mistakes were made when the city was allowed to develop around the airport.
It is best when airports are situated thirty kilometres outside cities. There was speculation that a new airport would be constructed, but an airport of a similar size would cost no less than three billion litas.
Unfortunately, Lithuania does not have such funds, and it would also be difficult to attract foreign investors, as they would count how long it would take for the billions invested to pay off.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take passengers long to reach the city centre. A trip on the new train from the airport to the railway station takes only seven minutes, and the number of passengers is increasing every day. How many airports are there in the world from which you can reach the city centre in a few minutes?