It seems AirBaltic is now been made Airline of the Year by the European Regions Airline Association, and is inviting us to celebrate this by booking cheap flights. Eventually it becomes clear that this only applies to flights starting in the Baltic States, which is not much help if you start in Tbilisi. It’s not clear what the criteria were for this prize but to me it seems their service is deteriorating rapidly.
Because the Lithuanian national airline flyLAL went bankrupt at the beginning of the year, AirBaltic is now the only affordable and sensible route between my work in Tbilisi and my home in Vilnius. So I have been travelling regularly on this route.
I have got used to being in cramped seat conditions on the longer overnight flight between Tbilisi and Riga. The flight is usually full, causing even more cramped conditions. The alternative flights to Vienna and Istanbul, the main alternative routes out of Tbilisi, are usually half empty. On these flights, you also get food, blankets and a whole row of seats to yourself, if you are lucky. On my last flight back from Riga AirBaltic tried to charge me 2 Euros for a bottle of water, until I complained, when they produced free water from the back cabin!
But it is the tricks they are playing with baggage that really upset me on a recent trip home that included a side trip to Helsinki. It was impossible to book 6 consecutive flights on the website so I went to the local AirBaltic office down the road in Tbilisi. The flight seemed much cheaper than I was expecting after looking at the costs on the website. Only later I realized that I had to pay an extra 13 Euros for each bag I checked in, on every leg of the flight. This was not mentioned when I booked the ticket. So the flight actually cost 78 Euros more. If I had just turned up at the airport without paying on line, it would have cost me 15 Euros, or 90 Euros in total. While writing this article I was checking my facts, and I find that, had I paid at the same time as the ticket, I would only have been charged 10 Euros per leg.
Now these days when we are all trying to cut down on carbon emissions, I can’t really complain about paying for baggage, but AirBaltic check-in desks are really inconsistent on how they apply their policy. Usually my bag is overweight by a few kilos. Sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, I take out my big bag from the suitcase (I carry it specially for the purpose) and fill it with the books and papers I need for my work, until my suitcase is an acceptable weight. Usually this is enough to satisfy the check in person, who recognizes that the excess weight is still being carried on the plane and that this is really illogical, and we laugh about it.
In Helsinki, I was informed by an apologetic check in person that AirBaltic now weighs the baggage when it is offloaded and any overweight bags are contra charged to the airport at the check in end. Although the shift from hold to cabin at check in results in no less baggage being carried, and so no less fuel being used, AirBaltic still tries to earn extra money by charging when the weight is not shifted to the cabin. I don’t think even Ryanair has tried this trick.
In addition to this bag, I always have my handbag and computer. If the check in desk gets really fussy, I am ready to demonstrate that this bag possesses magical properties. It does not look very big, but I can always get the computer, handbag and items with excess weight inside it, and it will still always fit in the frame which airlines use to define the maximum size of hand baggage. Occasionally this all even gets weighed and is passed by AirBaltic.
To my surprise when I left Vilnius this last time, my boarding card was stamped “approved as one piece of hand baggage”. I have never seen that before. On this occasion, we had not even gone through the bother of proving everything would fit in one bag in the frame. So they had seen that I had 3 bags.
On the AirBaltic website there is no mention of restrictions on hand baggage above the usual one bag, with weight and size restrictions. Yet on this same return flight, when we were trying to board the Riga Tbilisi flight, a big row occurred at the front of the queue to board the bus.
The girl in charge of checking boarding cards announced she was charging 10 Lats for every piece of hand baggage over the single one allowed. Not only that but she spoke in Russian in a tone of voice reminiscent of Aeroflot’s best charm school (barking like a dog at us), and actually said “take it or leave it” (which in Russian sounds much worse). As she strode up and down in a long coat and knee high boots, she was missing only a whip and she could have been ready to work as a Nazi concentration camp guard. It was clear she was enjoying her work, and the other girl with her had the decency to look embarrassed.
Now in this part of the world when people invent rules like this, (usually traffic cops) you know it is because they have low salaries or haven’t been paid recently. Usually they do not create a big fuss in public. So what do we assume, that she was especially stupid in trying to earn some extra money or that AirBaltic has a new unwritten baggage policy. And 10 lats (14 Euros) a bag? Who has Lats on the way home to Tbilisi? And you can be sure she wasn’t giving change for Euros or dollars.
Nearly everyone in the queue had bags that had already passed a check on an earlier flight to Riga where they were in transit. Or they had shopping that they had bought in the duty free shops in the airport. So some people had spent a lot in Riga airport and had a lot of shopping bags. Since when did an airline penalize customers for shopping in its home airport?
This woman was ruthless and rude to everyone. We were all tired, since the flight was departing around 10 pm. I crammed my bags into the frame and showed that it had passed a previous boarding check. I asked for her name. “968” she snarled. So now AirBaltic staff are reduced to numbers to protect them for complaints it seems.
Eventually the flight took off. The journey was spoilt for everyone. Next day I opened the English language paper Georgia Today. With the headline "AirBaltic looks to pay more attention to Georgia", a local journalist conducted an interview with Vice President of Sales Gregory Pomerantsev.
AirBaltic may have won a prize as best European Airline, but their agent 968 collected her own prize from the passengers on the flight from Riga to Tbilisi on Tuesday 27 September. I hope Mr Pomerantsev finds the right reward for her.