Featured/All images: Juan José de Gouveia/Airways

Hopping from Riga to Madrid on Board airBaltic 

DALLAS — Located in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, the Republic of Latvia is one of the three Baltic states, along with Estonia and Lithuania.

Latvia's capital city, Riga, is the largest city in the country and the most populous in the Baltic States. The most recent data from the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia shows that Riga is home to over 860,000 people and is also home to airBaltic (BT), the country’s flag carrier.

Last week, Airways had the opportunity to fly the airline's Business Class service from Lidosta Rīga International Airport (RIX) to Adolfo Suarez Madrid Barajas International Airport (MAD) on board the carrier’s workhorse, the Airbus A220-300.  

Established in 1995 and headquartered at Riga International Airport (RIX), BT operates over 130 routes from Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius, Tampere, and Gran Canaria (seasonally). These routes offer connections to numerous destinations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucasus.  

airBaltic boasts a modern fleet comprised exclusively of the Airbus A220-300. To date, it is the world’s largest operator of this type, with 47 in service. Once all current orders and options are exercised, the airline aims to expand its fleet to 100 A220-300s by 2030.

 Flight Overview  

Our journey began early in the morning with a short ride from the hotel to the airport, located just eight miles (13km) away from Riga’s city center. Latvia's capital showcases an eclectic architectural mix that ranges from Gothic to Soviet Brutalist. Today, Riga is rapidly changing and bringing back its cosmopolitan roots.  

Lidosta Rīga International Airport is an example of this architectural mix, where modern and Soviet architecture integrate. Built-in 1973 as an alternative to Spilve Airport, RIX features a single, two-storey passenger terminal building that has been expanded and upgraded several times.

Data from RIX shows that between January and April 2024, the airport transported nearly two million passengers (+4% from 2023) with 17,800 operations (+1% from 2023). airBaltic holds 54% of the airline market share, followed by Ryanair (FR) holding 28%.  

Most of the check-in counters at RIX are for BT flights. The airline prioritizes online check-in and offers several other options for travelers. Online check-in is available five days before the scheduled departure.

Passengers traveling from RIX can benefit from Twilight Check-in (which allows checking-in for their flights and dropping off their luggage from 19:00 to 22:00 the day before their scheduled departure), Self-Check-in Kiosks, or the standard check-in service.

We opted for online check-in at BT's website five days before our flight to Madrid (BTI685) and received our boarding passes via email. The airline's website is interactive, and we did not experience any issues or glitches during our online check-in.

The airline's mobile application, airBaltic Club, is an extra tool for passengers. Yet, there remains an opportunity for enhancement to facilitate smoother access to vital flight details, gate modifications, and convenient boarding pass retrieval.  

After spending some time around the terminal, we headed straight to the security checkpoint. Business Class travelers have access to a fast lane at security.

 Gate and Lounge  

Gate B8 was initially assigned to Madrid. After some duty-free shopping, we relaxed at the Primeclass Business Lounge.

This lounge offers a serene and cozy ambiance with amenities such as complimentary food and beverages, workstations, free Wi-Fi, tablet usage, entertainment options, shower facilities, luggage storage, mobile charging stations, and a kids' play area.

We also enjoyed the views to the airport’s ramp and runway.

Boarding and Aircraft  

Flight BTI685 (codeshare with Iberia (IB) boarding to Madrid was estimated to start at 12:30 from gate B8. However, the gate was changed to B2, and the boarding call was delayed for 30 minutes, claiming ATC capacity constraints in Spain.  

Our ride finally arrived in Riga from Munich (MUC). The 2.9-year-old Airbus A220-300 (YL-ABB), fitted with 149 seats and powered by two Pratt & Whitney PW1524G-3 engines, was ready to take us to the Spanish capital after a quick turnaround.

The first impression was of a modern and clean cabin design. The A220-300 features a five-abreast cabin layout and a 32-inch pitch for legroom.

airBaltic uses the first four rows of the economy as business class, often blocking the middle seat to provide more room for passengers.

Seat 2A for this four-hour flight to Madrid was fairly cozy, with sufficient legroom. The large windows and oversized overhead bins were a nice bonus.

Although the A220 is a narrow-body aircraft, its cabin is spacious with high ceilings, and the restroom at the front of the cabin is reserved for business-class passengers only.

In-Flight Service  

A welcome drink (orange juice or water) was offered by the friendly airBaltic cabin crew right after we boarded. The Business Class section was almost empty, and we had the option to change our seats.

The pushback began half an hour later than the original schedule, and we taxied straight to runway 18 for a rolling takeoff at approximately 13:20 local time.

The entertainment experience is perhaps the weakest point in the airlines's travel experience.

Seats don’t have any USB ports or power outlets, and there isn’t a proper in-flight entertainment system. Instead, BT's aircraft are equipped with small overhead screens throughout the passenger cabin.

Such small displays have airshow functionality and serve to announce messages to the passengers, including safety videos and commercials.

The Baltic Outlook magazine is also a must-read for travelers, featuring inspiring stories, updates on destination cities, practical tips, and the latest trends in design, food, technology, and style.

There's no Wi-Fi connectivity on this flight. However, BT has announced that it will equip its entire Airbus A220-300 fleet with SpaceX’s Starlink internet connectivity system by the end of 2024.  

After the seatbelt signs were turned off, the flight attendant offered the business class menu, with the option to have our meal right away or mid-flight.  

The weather was mostly sunny along the route without turbulence. Overall, it was a steady and relaxing flight. While overflying Hamburg, Germany, the crew informed us that the meal would be served in 15 minutes and offered a hot sanitizing towel.

Meal Service

The Business Menu provided by airBaltic epitomized culinary excellence throughout the brief journey. Commencing with a starter of delicately seasoned salmon accompanied by cream cheese, trout roe, and a quail egg, it was a perfect starter to a Latvian culinary experience at FL390.

Following this, a main course of venison stew paired with carrot puree, sautéed mushrooms, and an array of seasonal vegetables. Notably, the venison was impeccably prepared, exhibiting tender texture and further elevating the experience. The meal ended with a lemon posset adorned with rhubarb sauce, offering a delightful balance of flavors.

Complementing these culinary delights was a traditional refreshing Latvian lager beer, chosen to harmonize with the main course perfectly.

Enhancing the overall presentation, the tableware, crafted from porcelain, boasted cheerful, knitted textures reminiscent of the iconic Lielvārde belt pattern, while meticulously arranged metal cutlery ensured each dish was served and enjoyed at its optimal temperature.

If you haven't had the opportunity to experience Riga Black Balsam, I highly recommend indulging in it during your next BT flight, perhaps paired with a cup of black coffee.

Riga Black Balsam is a revered traditional Latvian herbal liqueur with a rich history dating back to the 18th century. Crafted from a confidential amalgamation of 24 diverse herbs, roots, berries, and spices, it is meticulously infused with a base of vodka or grain alcohol.

Over Zaragoza, the captain informed us that we would land in Madrid on time. Following a 30-minute delay in Riga, the crew efficiently commenced our descent according to the original plan.   

  We safely touched down on Madrid’s runway 32R. However, it took us about 15 minutes of taxiing to arrive at our designated gate. Disembarking was quick, and exiting the airport was even faster than the taxiing process in MAD.

The Verdict 

 Overall, the four-hour journey with BT was enjoyable and comfortable. We particularly appreciate the airline's focus on delivering excellent service and the crew's dedication to passenger satisfaction.  

airBaltic serves as more than just a national airline; it embodies the role of a brand ambassador for the Baltic culture, representing nations in transition from its Soviet past to embracing a modern global identity   

Recently, the carrier's executives discussed Q1 2024 results, updated ongoing engine issues, and announced plans for a 2024 IPO. Negotiations with Pratt and Whitney continue for an agreement, with compensation sought for engine delays.  

High fuel prices remain a concern, representing 36% of costs, down from 45% in 2022, attributed to geopolitical events. Martin Gauss, airBaltic’s CEO, told Airways that the synergies spawning from the airline’s group have had a positive, significant impact on the local economy valued in billions of euros.

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