Before the pandemic, airBaltic was a rising star in Europe. The airline managed to build up a busy hub in Riga where there had been nothing of the sort before, alongside bases in Vilnius and Tallinn. It served dozens of destinations and, as one of the early adopters of the A220 (dubbed the Bombardier CSeries at the time), stretched its route map to some very interesting cities. Tbilisi, Almaty, Abu Dhabi, Lisbon. And with intelligent codesharing deals with partners across all alliances in various other hubs, it could offer connectivity all over the globe.
The pandemic changed that picture almost overnight. Not least because the Latvian government decided to halt all international flying for 62 days.
A full year of shutdowns
“Exactly a year ago we came to the week where we had to stop flying completely,” said Martin Gauss, CEO of airBaltic. We spoke at the end of last week and the full interview is now available on this week’s edition of the AvTalk podcast. Gauss said things picked up in early summer, and a lot of people were eager to fly. But as we know, things didn’t go so smoothly after that. “One year later we’re at the lowest possible level, ensuring basic connectivity but flying very little. And we’re now waiting for the real restart, which will come when sufficient vaccine levels have been reached in Europe.”
However, there is now a certain optimism that soon enough, airBaltic may get to resume its ascent.
“After one year we’re here, we’ve made it, and we’re in a good strong position,” said Gauss. “We made a lot of changes to our strategy.”
An all-A220 fleet
Most notable among those changes was the nearly overnight shift to a single aircraft type in the fleet. The plan was already set for airBaltic to go to an all-A220 fleet, retiring its Dash 8 and 737 Classic. But that was due to happen in 2023. The pandemic changed that date to “now.”
“That strategy change has changed our business going forward because it happened three years earlier than it would have,” said Gauss. “We have only seen improvements because everything we wanted to reach three years later we have already reached when we started again last year in May.”
Not looking back
“It works out perfect,” Gauss continued. “We’re not missing any of the other types. It makes things so much easier. Everybody is trained for that aircraft type. It has so many benefits for our customers and for our operations. If we could, we would have taken this step earlier even, knowing what we know now.”
As it happens, Martin Gauss is one of few airline CEOs who is a type-rated pilot on their airline’s main aircraft. He’s been a pilot for 29 years and previously flew the 737, but he says he used the pandemic year to complete his type rating on the A220.
“I have to say it makes me extremely proud to fly in our airline,” said Gauss. “It also gives me a lot of insight, actually flying the aircraft itself. But the biggest benefit is that in the daily operation of the aircraft I see what it is capable of doing, and if we look at the highlights of the aircraft, the avionics and what kinds of approaches you can do, all the modern technology that it has, as a pilot it’s very interesting to operate.”
Gauss says flying the A220 is a source of inspiration. “Whatever you do in life if you do something which is different to your daily routine, you get new insights. And, if you have ever taken off a jet into the sky, especially in winter weather, you’re going through the clouds reaching the sun, and then you’re cruising and crossing countries – it is very different. You have different thoughts.”
The perfect aircraft for airBaltic
Most importantly, though, he says it’s the perfect aircraft for airBaltic to have as it heads into the future and continues to pursue an ambitious growth strategy.
“This aircraft is designed for the future,” said Gauss. “The philosophy of operating the A220 is really state-of-the-art. It’s very much liked among pilots because it delivers a very high level of comfort. It has everything you would wish for if you were a pilot. So today it has navigation equipment, some of it you can’t use yet because it’s ready for the future. And you can really focus on your job as a pilot, to monitor what’s going on. But of course it also has a very nice maneuvering capability if you fly by hand.”
AirBaltic has 25 A220s in its fleet now, with 25 more on the year. 7 of those will come in 2021. And the airline holds options to acquire 30 more. Gauss says its new business plan, devised in the middle of last year as a way to emerge from the crisis, is called “Destination 2025 CLEAN.” It involves plenty of continued expansion once demand picks up again.
“We will take these 50 aircraft for the Baltics, mainly based in Riga but also at the moment two in Tallinn and in Vilnius, and that number [will be] increasing as we get more aircraft,” said Gauss. “And after the 50 aircraft we have a very clear strategy to move out of the Baltics and also base aircraft in the Nordics.”
“We are perfectly set up”
“We are perfectly set up. The aircraft can do very short sectors with 145 seats, more like a regional aircraft, but we can also fly it on very long sectors. For us the longest is around 7 hours from Riga to Abu Dhabi.”
Gauss also says no destination within the A220’s range is necessarily off the table. And the plane’s potential fits well with how he sees the industry shaping up in years to come.
Africa on the cards?
“Now with the extension possible on that aircraft we can even fly from Riga to Addis Ababa direct,” Gauss said. “So the aircraft is enabling us to do what we want to do. Addis Ababa is not something we’re looking at now, but after the crisis the whole aviation sector is changing. We see this now with a lot of airlines changing focus on aircraft types, everybody looking for smaller equipment. We have the benefit of having probably the best small equipment.”
“We will be serving 75 destinations this summer from Riga. And 11 from Vilnius and Tallinn. But of course we are not limited, and Addis Ababa would be one where I would say okay, if someone can make a positive business case, we could fly it.”
People are itching to fly
So will travel demand return in a big way soon? Gauss thinks yes, as long as quarantine and self-isolation requirements go away.
“We definitely will see a surge,” said Gauss. “We had it when we started flying after 62 days being grounded. We had an incredible surge. People were storming the aircraft. And I would say that we’ll have a luxury problem of having 145 seats, and in the first weeks when that surge comes, we will have the issue then of, do we have enough aircraft?”