Riga International airport

Riga International airport

Reviews From Soviet seclusion to West European integration. The development of Baltic air connections

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2-3: 2018, p 121
Published on balticworlds.com on September 6, 2018

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My first encounter with a Soviet Baltic airport was in September 1990 when a Swedish delegation was allowed to arrive at Riga Airport by special permission. The small domestic airport was full of idle Aeroflot Tupolevs and perhaps less idle jet fighters. A Soviet Latvian diplomat stationed in Stockholm told us he had to fly from his home town of Riga via Moscow to reach his embassy. The Soviet Baltic republics were strictly secluded from their western neighbors, particularly in the air space.

Today, Riga International Airport is a modern, bustling hub for a number of carriers and destinations, mostly in the European Union, but also tourist charter targets in the Mediterranean, the Near East and Central Asia.

Lund University geographer Jan Henrik Nilsson presented his doctoral dissertation in 2003 on the theme of interactions and barriers in the Baltic Sea area. His main focus was on air traffic as an indication of contacts and the formation of a regional network. Unlike land and sea-borne transport, the air is ubiquitous and “only” dependent on available airports, often former military fields, and on the legislation and geopolitics of airborne relations. His present paper is an updated and reconsidered study based on relatively recent statistics based on time-tables of flights from Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Kaunas, Palanga, Minsk and Kaliningrad in the years 2000—2012.

Traffic statistics are always a difficult business. What is to be measured and which statistics are available? With the liberalization of air traffic, competition between carriers and between airports makes for many difficulties. The solution chosen is statistics from the OAG World Airways Guide, and Nilsson picks one week in October for each year, free from holidays, to calculate the number of flights from each airport, and by using the seat capacity of each airplane calculates the maximum number of passengers flown. The cabin factor cannot be measured, but with increasing competition, the companies tend to use airplanes suited to the number of passengers needed  to be economical. However, a number of companies have failed and others have been swallowed by more successful competitors.

The trend over these first 12 years of the 21st century is partly related to the business cycle affecting the five states. After a stagnation around the year 2000, the seat capacity increased steadily until 2007, when the recession hit particularly Latvia and Lithuania, but after three years the capacity increased again. But traffic is not a direct indicator of the well-being of the Baltic states, as much of the traffic consists of people flying to job markets in Western Europe, particularly  the United Kingdom and Ireland. Over the time period, there is a relative stagnation of the once dominating Nordic countries as targets for aviation from the Baltic States, with only Tallinn remaining as a “Nordic hub”. The accession to the European Union and NATO also influenced flights to Belgium, France and Germany. The intrusion of low-cost carriers like Ryanair and conversion into a low-cost airline by the former national carrier Air Baltic have also led to profound changes in the structure of air traffic.

Two airports not surprisingly differ in geopolitical and transport structure: Kaliningrad and Minsk. The exclave situation of Kaliningrad provides for a strong air connection with Moscow and St. Petersburg and some other Russian destinations, while the modern airport in Minsk shows a similar traffic structure with a strikingly low flight intensity for a state capital.

The paper is well written, the methods are carefully discussed, and the results are interesting as an indication of the extremely strong but also versatile changes in the geopolitical structure of the states of the Southeastern Baltic Rim. My only negative remark is about the editorial handling of the paper: references are given to Swedish translations of well-known books in English (Douglass North), and the years of publications are only given for the version read by the author, not the original, e.g.  Ratzel’s Politische Geographie is referred to in a 1923 edition, not his first 1897 or second (1903) version. While perhaps formally correct, this gives a totally anachronistic view of the history of ideas of spatial thought. ≈


Mobility and regionalization: Changing patterns of air traffic in the Baltic Sea Region in connection to European integration. Jan Henrik Nilsson, Geographia Polonica 2018. Vol. 91:1, pp 77–93.