Lithuanian Airports is one of the success stories of recent years, emerging from the pandemic in a flurry of ambitious infrastructure projects and new routes. Tom Batchelor reports.

Surging passenger numbers and aircraft movements, new routes and increased flight frequencies, a massive airfield renovation project and plans for a new Ryanair maintenance facility are making for exciting times at Lithuanian Airports. The state enterprise that manages Vilnius, Kaunas and Palanga airports is charting an impressive post-pandemic turnaround and, while war in Ukraine has darkened one corner of eastern Europe, neither the Russian invasion nor the lingering effects of COVID-19 have derailed a recovery that the group’s head of aviation services, Aurimas Stikliūnas, said was happening “much faster than forecast”.

In the last full year before the coronavirus upended global flight schedules, Lithuanian Airports served a record-breaking 6.5 million passengers on 62,000 flights across the trio of sites. In 2020, that was down to 1.8 million passengers and 30,000 flights. But the resurgence in demand for air travel pushed total passenger traffic at Lithuanian Airports up by 83% in April of this year compared with 2019 – the last year for which ‘normal’ volumes were recorded.


A trio of airports

At Kaunas Airport, the fastest growing of the three, passenger and flight traffic has already surpassed the level seen in April 2019. “Kaunas Airport is recovering the fastest in terms of overall results. Passenger and flight traffic grew by slightly more than 8% compared to April 2019, and the volumes of cargo transported grew by about 40%,” said Stikliūnas. In April this year, Kaunas Airport, located just outside Lithuania’s second city, handled 103,000 passengers, 893 flights and almost 384 tonnes of cargo. In the same month in 2019, 95,000 passengers travelled through the airport, 824 flights were handled, and 275.5 tonnes of cargo were transported.

To assess how rapid the recovery has been, last April , when COVID-19 was still hampering the industry and the global vaccination effort was only just beginning, Kaunas Airport handled just 6,000 passengers and 313 flights (although in line with a global uptick in air freight demand, the aircraft handled 401 tonnes of cargo that month).

In the capital, Vilnius, the airport handled 319,900 passengers in April 2022, more than 3,000 flights and 1,276 tonnes of cargo. In the same period in 2019, 418,000 passengers travelled through Vilnius Airport, 4,000 flights were handled and 1,132 tonnes of cargo were transported. In 2021, it handled almost 66,000 passengers, 1,400 flights and 1,391 tonnes of cargo.

Palanga Airport, which serves the Baltic coastal summer resorts, 90% of pre-pandemic passenger traffic has returned, with 23,000 people travelling through the airport in April 2022, 304 flights handled and 2.56 tonnes of cargo transported. In the same period in 2019, 26,000 passengers travelled through the airport, 440 flights were handled and 0.1 tonnes of cargo transported. In April last year, Palanga Airport handled just 1,500 passengers and 188 flights. No cargo was transported.

“The results we have achieved have allowed us to position ourselves at the forefront of Europe’s aviation recovery,” said Stikliūnas, adding that travellers are now able to choose from almost 90 direct routes offered by Lithuanian airports. “So far, we are leading in the Baltic States, and we are among the leaders not only in Northern Europe airports, but also in the whole European Union. It is very likely that we will continue to be the leader in the Baltic States in terms of the number of passengers carried.”

As passenger numbers creep back, another challenge has presented itself – staffing. Lithuanian Airports spokesperson Tadas Vasiliauskas told Airports International that in this context, the company was no different to other European operators.

He said: “We need to quickly rebuild staff numbers, which can be a challenge in terms of the necessary aviation tests for new employees.

“We hired more than 40 new specialists (in aviation safety, administrative and operational roles) in Q1 of 2022 and more than 50 will be employed by Q2."


Behind the growth

Driving this growth is the launch of new routes, and enhanced frequencies on existing city pairs. Ryanair launched 12 new summer routes for 2022 to destinations including Budapest, Gothenburg, Stockholm and Madrid – part of its biggest ever Lithuania schedule, with a total of 50 connections. The Irish low-cost operator also recently announced plans to expand aircraft maintenance at Kaunas with the construction of a new two-bay hangar, creating 200 jobs.

Construction work at the new facility is set to begin at the end of the year, with the first aircraft maintenance operations planned for the end of 2023. Two additional aircraft maintenance hangars will be built and the aircraft repair shop will be expanded. The entire programme will see work carried out on a 7,043m2 plot at the airport, supporting Ryanair’s four Kaunas and Vilnius-based aircraft (the airline has two Boeing 737-800s at each site). Julius Skackauskas, Lithuania’s deputy transport minister, said: “Lithuanian Airports is planning to become even stronger as the regional leader in MRO services and cargo transportation by 2030.

“We are pleased with the new investment at Kaunas Airport made by Ryanair, and it is truly one more step towards fulfilling our strategic long-term development goals.”

Arnas Dumanas, head of operations and infrastructure at Lithuanian Airports, added: “The further expansion of services at Kaunas Airport by Ryanair is a logical and well-calculated step, reflecting the recovering potential of the aviation industry. Seeing MRO services expand at Kaunas Airport corresponds with our long-term strategic goal, which we have been pursuing for a number of years.”


Historical project

Vilnius Airport too has been a hive of construction activity. "Simply put, Vilnius Airport has been turned in to a giant construction site for the last three years, where thousands of various construction specialists and machines were working non-stop,” Lithuanian Airports’ Vasiliauskas told Airports International.

In January 2022, the largest airfield renovation project in the country's aviation history was completed at Vilnius Airport. The three-year, €36m scheme has resulted in new taxiways being installed and existing apron areas upgraded, with surfaces modified and widened to permit larger aircraft. The airport expanded by 30%, including a new northern apron with eight aircraft parking spaces, five of them adapted for widebody aircraft. The work was triggered by the aviation boom during the 2010s that resulted in a lack of available aircraft parking stands, and constraints on the size of aircraft at various locations on the apron.

Boosting eco credentials

Aside from relieving capacity issues, the airfield project also enabled the airport to improve its green credentials. Around 1,000 energy-saving LED lights were installed – saving one-fifth of the hitherto consumed electricity – and improvements were made to the surface wastewater collection and treatment plant. The airport is also due to get an automated de-icing wastewater treatment plant that will allow the liquid collected to be treated and prepared for reuse. Construction on that project is pencilled in for later in 2022.

Improved taxiways should alsoreduce taxi times, saving fuel and speeding up airport operations more generally. Marius Gelžinis, general director of Lithuanian Airports, said the environmentally conscious upgrade would help Vilnius attract new carriers and came “at a time when it is necessary to expand the capacity to service various types of aircraft”. In March, Vilnius welcomed its latest airline, Swiss, which launched direct, twice-weekly flights to Zurich, using Airbus A220-100/A220-300 and Helvetic Airways-operated Embraer E190-E2/E195-E2s.

The airport operator is also positioning itself to benefit from the carbon savings offered by sustainable jet fuels. Baltjet, which oversees fuel supply infrastructure at Vilnius and Palanga airports, is exploring the technical requirements of providing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to aircraft at the two sites.

“The operator has committed itself to contribute to environmental objectives that are important to us and to aviation as a whole, that is, to adapt the infrastructure at our airports and to create the possibilities for the storage and supply of sustainable aviation fuel,” explained Dainius Čiuplys, head of operations and infrastructure at Lithuanian Airports.


The next big projects

In November, construction work on a new 4,800m2 DHL distribution centre at Vilnius Airport was given the green light. The facility will be able to handle more than 3 600 parcels per hour once completed, adding to the efficiency of the airport’s cargo-handling infrastructure.

Vilnius Airport is also set to benefit from a brand new passenger departures terminal in the northern part of the airport, between the existing departures and VIP Terminal & Conference centre, doubling the number of passengers the airport can process from 1,200 to 2,400 per hour. It will be connected to the existing passenger terminal by a walkway. “Before the pandemic, Vilnius Airport had reached its capacity limits,” noted Čiuplys. “The new terminal will expand the operational and technological possibilities of the airport.” Lithuanian Airports plans to select a contractor for the construction of the new terminal by the middle of 2022 and the doors could open as early as 2024.

On the perimeter of the airport, AirInn Vilnius Hotel is planning renovations including the installation of an aircraft observation deck on the roof. The design proposals have been agreed with airport representatives and the contract is scheduled to start in 2023.


Technological advances

Embracing new technology has also been part of the airport operator’s recent success. IT provider SITA has installed a new airport management system designed to enhance the passenger experience, increase operational efficiency and modernise airport and security operations. This includes hundreds of flight information displays at check-in counters, boarding gates and baggage belts in Vilnius, Kaunas and Palanga airports. The system shares data with other airport agencies such as the police, ground handlers and Lithuania’s Air Traffic Control Agency. In addition, Lithuanian Airports has rolled out an artificial intelligence (AI) assistant via its three airport websites, to help travellers plan their trips, including navigating fast changing travel rules and regulations. The Eddy Travels AI assistant helps prospective passengers search flights, accommodation, tours and activities.

The airports operator is also using its website to promote efforts by the Lithuanian government to support Ukrainian refugees fleeing the conflict. A banner across the homepage of all three airport websites, bearing the now ubiquitous blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, directs people to health and support services and information on integrating once in Lithuania.


Hanging on to its heritage

One unlikely impact of the crisis in Ukraine is the fate of Vilnius Airport’s Soviet-era arrivals terminal. Marius Skuodis, Lithuania’s transport minister, had called for the building to be demolished, arguing it did not fit with the modern image the country is trying to project. However, it was saved on the grounds that it was a structure of historical significance. With the actions of the Russian government under the spotlight once more, Lithuanian Airports is renewing calls for a new terminal. Marius Zelenius, head of communications at Lithuanian Airports, told a parliamentary committee that the terminal “probably serves [Russian] soft power like no other object in Lithuania. It is a propaganda tool and divides our society”. For now, at least, it looks likely that the building is safe, with the National Commission for Cultural Heritage resisting calls to permit its demolition.

Image: Lithuanian Airports

This feature was originally published in Issue 2, 2022, of Airports International.