January's storms and snowy weather conditions, which made it difficult for aircraft to land at the Rīga airport, were a headache for any air passenger whose flight was diverted to one of the airports of Lithuania or Estonia. Riga International Airport said that airlines do not choose other Latvian airports as an alternative for various reasons. Meanwhile, the Civil Aviation Agency (CAA) is negotiating with individual partners.
"The Lielvārde airport is considered to be a backup. And I know that, at the moment, airBaltic, CAA and Gaisa satiksme are already conducting such consultations in order to allow Lielvārde to be used as an alternative and for training. But I understand that there is still a long way to go," said Laila Odiņa, the Chair of the Board of Rīga International Airport.
The National Armed Forces (NBS) said that technically passenger planes can already land on the military airstrip in Lielvārde in the event of an emergency. However, after the landing of the aircraft, passengers must stay there until the responsible services, such as customs, arrive.
“Even if we were a slightly more prosperous country, if we had a civil airfield at a distance of [50 km], then maybe the airlines designate a backup airstrip in their flight plan. Probably could, but Baltic distances are not great – 300, 400 kilometers is not much if we compare this with other European countries,” said Ansis Mende, commander of the NBS Air Force Communications and Flight Support.
The relatively small distances of the Baltic States as one of the arguments why the flight crew chooses to fly to Lithuania or Estonia were also mentioned by Transport Minister Tālis Linkaits (New Conservative Party), adding that each of Latvia's airports has its own specifics. At the same time, the Minister stressed the need to start work on the long-term strategy of the airport, including possible expansion.
Liepāja airport is currently the base for airBaltic pilot academy and private aviation. Scheduled air traffic with Riga was suspended in the fall of 2020 and it is currently unclear when it could be restored. Speaking of Liepāja as a backup airfield for Riga airport, the airport representative confirmed that the airport was ready to react at any time of the day. The problem is parking the aircraft.
“It would be cool if passengers travelling to Latvia were not delivered to Lithuania or Estonia. But it must be understood that we are working on a daily basis with a smaller number of people – both firefighters and security guards – providing an emergency plan. Liepāja is a regional airport – all airplanes that go to Rīga cannot be parked here. We can park three planes and then the capacity is exhausted. And there is a need for development and investment, both at the airport and for the passenger terminal,” said Agris Sprūde, board member of the Liepāja airport.
The best situation from the Baltic States is in Lithuania, where there is legally one airport with three aerodromes at various sites in Lithuania – Kaunas, Palanga and Vilnius. In Estonia, however, the situation is similar to that of Latvia: airplanes are diverted to Riga if necessary.