Bernie Baldwin

airBaltic used the pandemic to streamline and boost its operation, as CEO Martin Gauss told delegates in Tampere.

Passenger numbers rising by triple figures compared with 2021, employees laid off because of the pandemic being rehired, and routes set to see a double-digit increase within a year. Those were the positive messages brought to CONNECT by airBaltic CEO Martin Gauss.

More than 550 employees were hired in 2021, while passenger numbers last year rose by 21% over 2020’s figures. And in the week of the event, the airline recorded a 500% increase in bookings compared with 2021 year, but Gauss still added a note of caution.

“We’re still 40% below 2019. So there’s still a way to go. But we’re preparing for this spring and summer to have more employees, and more flying than we ever had before,” he remarked. “With fewer restrictions, people are taking the chance to fly.”

During the pandemic, airBaltic transformed itself and moved to a single fleet of Airbus A220-300s, which is proving to be strongly instrumental in developing routes as well as creating other financial benefits.

“In March 2020, the government decided that we could not fly, apart from some repatriation flights. Our the focus was on staying secure in cash. Once that was secured, we had to revise the product. We knew it would not be the same and that strategic decision to go for only one aircraft type was taken earlier than we originally wanted,” Gauss recalled.

Thus, the carrier’s turboprop fleet and Boeings 737s were removed from service immediately. Flying only the Airbuses has changed everything in airBaltic, the CEO noted. “The type is the one of the greenest in its category and serves us very well. We fly the longest route [to Dubai], we are the largest operator of the -300 variant in the world. We do our own heavy maintenance. So all of these things we started doing during the pandemic have revolutionised our airline, to the point where we can now even open a base with that aircraft in another part of the world. So the A220 enabled us to accelerate things we wanted to do later,” he added.

Along with flying ‘greener’ aircraft, airlines nowadays need to have environmental social governance (ESG) as part of their DNA and initiatives in this area are happening at airBaltic. “Changing the fleet delivered a 25% saving on fuel and therefore emissions, but we still have to do more – sustainable aviation fuel, ekerosene and so on,” Gauss stated.

“Internally, we also have lots of ESG things happening. In Latvia, 52% of its territory is forests and we will be partnering on a project around that which we will announce once it’s live. Also, any car the company buys for ground staff use or at HQ is an electric car.

“Sustainability is all about diversity as well,” he added. “We have been nominated by IATA for the Diversity Award because 50% of our personnel is female and in top management, 50% is female. We have a sustainability report issued every year.

“And we have to do more than others because airBaltic is going to the stock exchange in 2023-24 to repay the state’s injection. If you want to deal with the Stock Exchange today, you need to demonstrate to all these international investors or in your prospectus, the whole year sustainability targets.”

As noted, the route network will continue to grow, with Tampere itself playing a key role when airBaltic opens a base there in May. “Elsewhere, we opened Batumi in Georgia, an interesting destination that is new. When we opened it for sale, bookings just shot through the roof,” Gauss reported. “So there are airports, which most of us probably haven’t heard of, where you can suddenly fly to and fill an aircraft. I think we will see much more after the pandemic, that airports maybe not on the map before will now be, because the traffic system which existed before the pandemic had a lot of corporate travel as its backbone. That might come back at a later stage.

“There will be opportunities for direct connections with the aircraft available, not only the A220, but the Embraer 195 which also has very good, very efficient engines. We changed [our Middle East destination] from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, which is such a success that we had to increase the frequencies to five times a week to Dubai from Riga. That was not possible before we had that aircraft, because we didn’t have the range.

“At the same time, we’re doing the Tampere service with a 50 minute flight from Riga as a shuttle. It’s also not a problem. These kind of aircraft are enabling services, like the A321LR can do a short sector and then go across the Atlantic. That is new and it will enable airports and airlines to do new things,” he emphasised