The national carrier of Latvia is one of the world’s most punctual airlines. It’s also among the most ambitious.
Flight BT304 to Riga pulls away from the gate in Helsinki at 13:52 – three minutes ahead of schedule. I’m relieved. Not because I need to be somewhere on time, but because Air Baltic’s reputation for punctuality is what first got me interested in the airline.
Aviation-analyst firm OAG maintains the industry’s most comprehensive punctuality rankings, tracking some 57.5 million flight records annually. For the past five years, OAG has named Air Baltic as one of Europe’s top-five most punctual airlines. In 2018, it was ranked as the continent’s most punctual and the second-most punctual in the world.
While its on-time-performance has slipped a few percentage points in recent years, this is to be expected given Air Baltic’s rapid expansion. From its hubs in Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius, the airline now serves some 80 destinations in Europe, the CIS countries and the Middle East. In 2019, passenger numbers were up 22% to more than five million – capping off a decade of year-on-year growth – as the airline opened some 10 new routes. Much of the growth in passenger numbers is being driven from outside the Baltic states, including Sweden (+57%), Ukraine (+54%) and Germany (+46%).
There’s no sign of a slowdown either: by 2025, Air Baltic expects to have a fleet of around 80 aircraft – more than double the number it flies today. By then, the airline intends to be operating only Airbus A220-300 jets, said to be the world’s quietest and most energy-efficient single-aisle commercial aircraft. With its capacity for up to 145 passengers and a 4575-kilometre range, the A220-300 was designed for exactly the kind of rapid-turnaround regional hubs Air Baltic operates. Most of the airline’s flights are under four hours (the exceptions being its routes to the UAE and Kazakhstan).
While passengers appreciate the A220-300 for its comfort and sustainability, pilots love flying the aircraft too. At Air Baltic they say it feels like the cockpit has been “designed by pilots for pilots.” With the aviation industry facing a pilot shortage, the attractiveness of the A220-300 is an important part of the airline’s talent-retention strategy. So too is the pilot academy it opened two years ago, where budding commercial pilots can get financing, three-years of training and the promise of a job. Trainees come from across Europe and more than 10% are female.
Air Baltic’s customer-service model is based on a familiar hybrid approach that combines the best practices of both traditional airlines and ultra-low-cost carriers. Basic economy-class tickets come with the option of paying to reserve a specific seat, check-in baggage or order a meal on board. At the other end of the scale is a full-service business class.
Despite there being few trans-continental flight options from the Baltic region, the airline says it has no immediate intentions to open any such routes. Instead, it would prefer to code-share with long-haul carriers that use Riga as a transfer hub.
From 2020, passengers will see less single-use plastic on board Air Baltic flights. Beverage stirrers, cups, plates, cutlery and food packaging are all gradually being replaced by paper, wood and other biodegradable materials. The airline is also developing a carbon-offset tool – set to launch this year – while it continues to work with environmental organisations that preserve natural ecosystems in the Baltic region.