Sunday, June 21, 2009

easyJet vs Estonian air on TLL - LON

Tallinn to London is one of the few routes out of the Baltic States with more than one carrier left. British easyJet flies to Stansted with the biggest frequency and capacity share leaving Estonia’s flag carrier Estonian air - with just two weekly flights to Gatwick - last. In end of August Estonian air will reduce capacity even more by putting their fresh 90-seated CRJ900 on the route. Already in October Estonian air frequency will be doubled to 4 weekly and weekly seating capacity will reach 360.

Cheapest one-way fares were found on each of the flights from June to August. In addition cheapest possible flight or flight combination was found on price comparison website

The results are clear – Estonian air tickets are about 40% more expensive than easyJet’s. returned interesting results – lowest fares offers easyJet, airBaltic or booth. airBaltic connections at RIX were cheapest in many cases in July and August but easyJets’s direct service in most cases in June, September and October. Estonian air and Czech airlines were cheapest in just few cases. Surprisingly but Finnair  - which operates feeder route to HEL -  offered the cheapest fare in no cases.
Worse frequencies and worse pricing makes serious concerns about profitability of Estonian air operations. They had put all hopes on introducing the new fuel-efficient CRJ’s so reducing operation costs. Lets hope that bringing frequency to four (1--45-7) will make the service more convenient and Estonian air will - at last - get on feet.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Rail Baltica - 1435mm or 1520mm Gauge?

The idea of connecting the Baltic rail system to the rest of Europe is circulating already for a decade. So far the main problem was considered gauge differences between Poland (1435mm) and the Baltic states (1520mm) and - at least politicians – see the idea of building a 1435mm gauge from the border of Poland further to the north reasonable. In European Parliament election 2009 just one political party did put a single phrase about Rail Baltica project in their program: ‘We are supporting this project because it will allow reaching Berlin within 10 hours from Riga by train’. I voted for them although I knew that an aircraft reaches Berlin in 1hour and 35minutes and their statement just proved that Rail Baltic - as presented so far - is not a runner.

Rail Range – 3.5 Hours
Projects in Europe show that most passengers prefer train rather than plane if travel time on train is no longer than 3 – 3.5h. The current record of system-wide average speed 279.4 km/h is set by French TGV. If we suppose that a new system with average speed of 280 km/h is built the maximum travel range of 980km is set. The further city reachable from Tallinn would be Warsaw (air service dropped in 2008); from Riga – Poznan (no direct service); from Kaunas and Vilnius – Berlin (no direct service, just connections at RIX, CPH, WAW). 
Building the Earth's best standard gauge high-speed rail line trough Poland and the Baltic states would result in attracting passengers from Warsaw to Vilnius, Kaunas, Riga and Tallinn  - whith all currently have a poor air service and few daily (2 to 3) coach service. Berlin - one of the busiest air routes out of RIX – would see no impact. More real average speed v=180 km/h would give feasible connections just from Warsaw to Kaunas and Riga. I strongly doubt Baltic States need such multi-billion project to ease connection in very limited city pairs in North – South axis.

Rail Baltica as Baltic Domestic System
Rather than spending billions for building totally new and separate 1435mm tracks I advise building 1520mm high-speed lines for local use. The biggest problem in the Baltic railways is lack of direct lines between capitals. Riga-Tallinn rail route take a long detour trough Tartu (30% longer than the direct highway); Riga-Vilnius take detour trough Šaulai and Kaunas with make the route 20% longer then the direct highways. I propose new Rail Baltica concept in 4 stages.

Stage 1: Jonava to Panavėžys. This line ads the missing connection from Panavėžys to Vilnius, Kaunas and further south – Marijampolė and Alytus. As Panavėžys is the 4th city in Lithuania considerable flows can be attracted to the two biggest cities in Lithuania.  
Stage 2: Panavėžys to Riga. This section includes optional stops at Pasvalys, Bauska and Iecava. As Riga is the biggest city in the region business and tourism traffic will be attracted and induced. If RIX south and/or north rail link is built - this line can beat BT’s feeder routes from VNO and KUN. Nonstop services from Lithuania are possible to Jūrmala, Ventspils, and Tartu. Stage 1 and 2 is to be the most important rail corridor in the Baltic region because it connects the most populous cities.
Stage 3: Tallinn to Pärnu. Existing rail service is extremely poor – serious upgrades and new sections are required. Pärnu can be connected to North-East region.
Stage 4: Riga to Pärnu. New line needed at least between Saulkrasti and Pärnu. This line would attract all Riga- Tallinn passenger traffic and could provide direct service from Tallinn to various cities in Latvia and Lithuania.

Flexible Solutions
Broad gauge Rail Baltica would not require extremely expensive new tracks in mayor cities but uses the existing infrastructure. High speed passenger lines differ from classic lines with bigger radii (~7km) of curves, advanced catenary and signaling systems. If a new line is built it must correspond to highest geometrical and track standards – the rest can be installed later and speed increased gradually. Train sets must go on two voltage standards (3kV DC in Riga and Tallinn; 25kV AC in Vilnius – Kaunas route and new high-speed lines) – alternatively - 3kV DC can be substituted with diesel generators. Furthermore - more expensive dual gauge train sets could still cross the Polish border and reach Warsaw.

Freight trains require smaller slope gradients but this seems not to be a problem in the flat terrain of the Baltic States. Freight must be reloaded regardless on location of reloading terminal – weather in Tallinn, Riga and Kaunas as in 1435mm proposal – or near the Polish border in case of 1520mm gauge tracks.

I hope the policy-makers will leave their ambition of building standard gauge railway across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as it would be very unflexible and expensive. Intra-Baltic network can give bigger benefits with lower cost.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

airBaltic RIX Base: 2007 and 2009

While Q1 GDP in the Baltic’s is falling by 18% in Latvia and by 14% and 15% in Lithuania and Estonia respectively airBaltic in May sees a stunning 33% increase in passenger numbers at Riga base made by transfer passengers. What are the factors that make people transfer though RIX more and more?
Small Airport - Short Transfers
Riga airport is so tiny that getting from one gate to another takes no more than a few minutes and bit longer if passport control needed. For airBaltic that allows selling tickets with transfer time of 25 minutes - with makes total flight time comparable - in some city pairs - with direct service in  and allows more flights to be connected. Lost baggage numbers are not published so far. In future airport wants to keep transfer times in the same level but it may harder to manage if new terminals is added.
More Convenient Schedule Attracts Thousands
In comparison with year 2007 schedule is re-arranged to allow selling more connecting flights especially to and from Northern Europe.

In 2007 most flights could be divided within 4 groups (see visuals). Group 1 included Baltic and Scandinavian capital and limited number of cities in Western Europe. Group 2 included mostly eastern cities and few in Western Europe. Group 3 included all Nordic and Baltic destinations and key European destinations. Group 4 included just Baku, Tbilisi, Dublin and Saint Petersburg. Few low-frequency vacation destinations were operated out of these groups. This schedule allowed transfers between Western Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic states to cities in the East (Kiev, Minsk, Tbilisi etc).

Things have changed much since 2007 although the same 4 flight groups are still live. Group 1 is almost the same as in 2007. Group 2 has experienced serious change. Now it consists mostly of West and South Europe destinations with high frequencies. Group 3 is the same just expanded. Group 4 gained low-capacity flights to Tallinn and Vilnius because of the very last arrival at destination and the very first departure. Group 5 is a newcomer. As it allows transfers with group 2 - booth in morning and evening - that's whay it has a big importance. Group 5 includes high capacity flights to Vilnius, Tallinn, Helsinki (B737-500 or -300 instead of F50) and other cities. If operated to close airports this group requires long night stops (as it is now) but I see big opportunities for group 5 to attract services to airports further in east. Now most of pax seems rotating trough groups 1-2-3 and 2-5. The original concept of transfers from the East to the West has become secondary. Flights to central Asia and Caucasus all are with night stop and can be connected at lest to flight group 2. Flights to Eastern Europe are split between all groups and have no common policy.
Punctuality Increase and Better On/Offboard Service
In summer 2008 airBaltic faced a decrease of 15-minute on-time performance down to 75% in August. In autumn situation gradually became better and reached record-high 94.2% on-time performance in May 2009. Furthermore some feeder operations in group 4 now backup group 5 in case of flights from group 2 being late.
In May airBaltic launched a business lounge at RIX (in reality – took over the only existing one) to attract more high-end passengers. And - even better - a portable entertainment system is for rent onboard flights longer than 3 hours.

Conections of Long-Haul Flights
Current flight group 5 allows operations for up to 15h whith -  together with 45min turnaround - allows to reach airports within 5700km - with is not enough to reach airports in the Fare East or in North America. For longer flights exist two options: 1st – to depart after group 2 arrives and arrive before groups 3 and 5 depart. This will work well if groups 3 and 5 are upgraded with second daily flights to West Europe destinations (MUC, CDG, AMS etc); 2nd option – departure after groups 1 and 5 arrive and return next day before group 2 depart. This requires upgrades of groups 1 and - again - 5. As group 3 is currently more developed than group 1 - first option is more reasonable. Booth options gives range of 8500km with is enough to reach all Asian cities (except Singapore) and US East coast cities.
If in an economic slump we see such increase in BT RIX traffic than what to expect at upturn? BTW - rumors are going that Warsaw and Pskov will be next destinations announced.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Proposal: a High-rise District in Liepāja

Liepāja is a town in the West of Latvia famous with the wonderful beach, cultural heritage and charming historical low-rise architecture. The population is 85.000 and keeps dropping. So far policy-makers have worked to fit all development projects in the existing environment and hadn’t done anything to encourage modern high-rise development. Liepāja doesn’t have an impressing historical skyline but have a chance to get modern one. I propose a way to convert existing port and waste territories south of city channel (see map) to a modern skyscraper cluster. This area is on edge of the historical old town, next to the beach and seaside park.

The Key - New Rail Terminus
Current railway station in Liepāja is located 1.8 km from central (Rožu) square - booth are connected by the only tram line in the town. Due to train shortage existing intercity train service is ridiculous - just one daily train to Riga. If more trains are put on service – especially tilting ones – rail connection to Riga and Jelgava will easily beat the coach service. As Liepāja is a seaside resort – seasonal rail services may be established from all biggest Baltic cities.
A new railway link and terminus are essential to create a motive for high-density land use in the area. I propose building an underground station in the site of the old stadium and to connect it to existing railway through tunnel under the city channel. A new tram line to the center must be built to provide accessibility for the rest of city. It is worth adding tram lines to Ezerkrasts, Karosta, and a higher standard line through airport to Grobiņa.
Change Through Adding
Lot A is the very first to be developed because the railway terminal construction underground. All historical fortifications and pounds must be preserved but the rest can be built-up with no height or density restrictions (as higher as better). In lots A and B all buildings (and functions) must be preserved as long as possible. New high-rise buildings must be built in gaps between existing ones. Different functions must be left together - retail, residential, hotels, offices, fish warehouses and docks – to makes the urban life more attractive. Lot C must be developed later than lot B to make the more important development of lot B faster.
Benefits for Almost all Districts
Seaside parks and the channel waterfront would strongly benefit from the proposed development because of the increased number of visitors. The influence to historical center is unclear – it may loose some services but the improved accessibility probably will outweigh losses. The current train station area will face problems only if buss station is moved together with train station to the new district. All the other areas of the town and region would see strong benefit from tourism and other business. Building a new tunelled rail link and station may seem too ambitious for Liepāja, but I believe it will induce even more rail trafic and bring the city to a new level of development.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Skyways vs airBaltic on VNO-CPH

Skyways launched a Fokker 50 VNO-CPH-VNO service on weekdays starting 2 June but already in 4 June announced service cancellation between 29 June and 9 August. Flights in August will be operated twice weekly (Mondays and Fridays) and starting from 24 August the service is planned to became five times weekly again. Vilnius – Copenhagen route is already served twice daily by airBaltic with 120-seated B737-500. airBaltic is still unbeaten frequency (74%) and seating capacity (87%) leader. Why Skyways have faced problems with this route after just two days of operation?

Price Leader in June – Skyways, in September - airBaltic

Skyways offer the best price almost all days in June. The highest BT’s fare (€564) was found 7 June when just two business-class tickets were left. As Skyways is a newcomer (although information about it was circulating in media for a longer time) the bookings of June are no fully balanced. Skyways ticked prices include 20kg checked-in baggage but airBaltic luggage fare of €10 is not included in compared prices if the cheapest available ticked is in economy class.

September is the next month when Skyways plan full operation on this route. As the graph shows BT typically offers lower price than Skyways constant €132 which is almost double of June’s lowest €72. airBaltic’s one-way price varies between €46 on few dates to €211 in 13 September.

Fare Levels: Skyways Shocks
In order to inspect availability of lowest fares different numbers of passengers was entered in booth booking systems. This makes possible to find prices of up to 9 next tickets. A date (8 September) was selected to ensure that a very limited number of bookings are done. Skyways booking system showed a bad surprise – just seven tickets still available for €132 – 8th ticket cost €453 which is about the same level of airBaltic’s business-class tickets. The same fare was found on many other dates (but not all) in June, August, September and October. In the same time airBaltic offer 5 tickets for €85 (evening flight) and the rest for €114.
If Skyways €453 sky-high tickets (about 40 out of 50) are not just an error in the booking system or in my analysis I see no success in their VNO-CPH service. The Skyways prices in June show that ticket fares are grouped in more than just two fare levels so hope exist that autumn prices will be reloaded and maybe corrected to achieve smaller average fare. Still airBaltic have several more advantages in this route: a codeshare with SAS an other companies from Copenhagen; better service frequencies and more convenient flight times; possibility to book VNO-RIX-CPH or just RIX-CPH if needed. I advise Skyways to consider switching VNO-CPH capacity to some other Baltic or Scandinavian city - PLQ, KUR, LPX, VNT, TAY, EPU, VBY or other – and concentrating on local tourism.