As the man who is responsible for ground operations and various new projects at airBaltic, Darius Viltrakis has a lot on his plate. He is also an inveterate traveller and sports enthusiast, and recently he became the father of a beautiful baby boy. His colleagues refer to him as a friendly, kind and helpful person. In this interview, Viltrakis shares his passions and discusses some of the latest projects to be implemented at airBaltic.

As the man who is responsible for ground operations and various new projects at airBaltic, Darius Viltrakis has a lot on his plate. He is also an inveterate traveller and sports enthusiast, and recently he became the father of a beautiful baby boy. His colleagues refer to him as a friendly, kind and helpful person. In this interview, Viltrakis shares his passions and discusses some of the latest projects to be implemented at airBaltic.

What are your responsibilities?

My main responsibility is to subcontract and outsource airBaltic activities. We process a lot of tenders. Most of my work involves negotiations, agreements and follow-up activities. Whenever we fly to a new destination, we have to find a supplier who will perform ground handling duties and services for us. I am responsible for communicating with the airports and for the operations that take place on the ground, such as ground handling, fuelling, de-icing and bus transportation.

People tend to relate ground handling with a specific airport or airline. This was indeed the case in the past, when airlines also owned ground-handling companies, especially in the United States. But that was before low-cost airlines entered the market. The situation started to change about 10-15 years ago, when airlines decided to focus on their core business and outsourcing become the norm. Now in most cases ground-handling companies are private and separate from the airports.

I am also involved with various other projects besides ground handling. For example, the airBaltic bus transfer project, which includes three countries – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. This has been a high-profile and well-received service, with free Wi-Fi on the buses, and has given airBaltic some good PR. The project was very time-consuming, but in the end we were able to deliver a great new product to our passengers.

How did you assume your current position?

It has been a long journey. I started my aviation career at the very bottom, taking on a simple checkin position with airBaltic at the Vilnius airport when I was 18 years old. It was my first job. I have a diploma in engineering, but aviation has always been close to me as I come from an aviation family. My father was a pilot with Aeroflot for more than 30 years and my brother is still flying as a captain at Avion Express. I suppose it was my destiny. I have now been involved in aviation for 17 years.

After a period at the check-in desk, I became deputy station manager for airBaltic in Vilnius, then station manager, with the responsibility of managing all of the flights from the city. Some years later, airBaltic decided to expand and increase the number of flights from Lithuania, establishing a large base in Vilnius. At one point we had around 300 people working there – cabin crew, flight crew and ground staff. Then the economic crisis set in and the stable growth became a stable decline, so there was no sense in keeping a separate person for only one station. I was invited to join the team in Riga and five years ago I moved here. Step by step, I began to manage all of the stations outside of Riga, eventually becoming vice-president of outstations. Two years ago, I was offered the opportunity to step up into my current role of senior vice-president of ground operations.

What are you working on now?

We are planning to offer an improved web check-in for passengers starting from January 1. It will be easier to use, with less steps to take before you get your boarding pass. Additional product purchases will also be available. We are already offering our passengers the opportunity to purchase their meals before the flight, which was not the case before. Now you can also buy the seat beside you for extra comfort.

Previously the process was very limited; either you bought these extra services when booking your ticket or during your flight. We had a pretty big gap between those two stages so we are trying to close it and offer more products through the web check-in, which begins 72 hours before the flight
departure. We want to be flexible and offer our passengers whatever they need during the flight. Passengers should be able to create their own travel experience the way they want it. This is a bit of a low-cost airline influence, but we want to be flexible.

For example, before, you could only buy certain set packages of our products or services, but not all passengers wanted to do that. If I want an extra seat or meal, then I can now buy it. If I decide that I want to check in one more bag, then I can do this during the web check-in. We are becoming much more flexible, because we can offer more products at almost any time that the passenger wants.

Are people keen to create their own travel experience?

So far, things have been going well. We see that people are keen to buy our products if they see value in them. If you offer these products at the right time, then it works. This is a learning process for me as well in trying to find the appropriate products for our passengers. It is not always easy to offer new things in the airline business, as there are so many limitations and restrictions. Then we have to find the right way to deliver these products as well. In order for the system to work perfectly, everyone – including the agents and cabin crew – should know what each passenger has ordered. Implementing such a system can be difficult and take a lot of time. We are continually trying to create valuable products and improve our service.

How have passengers’ travel habits changed since you began working in the aviation industry?

When I still was a check-in agent, it was a luxury to travel by plane. There were a lot of people in suits and ties, so things were different in that respect. During the 17 years that I have been in the business, the scene has changed completely and now air travel is more like bus travel. When I was a student, for example, I could not imagine taking a flight to Mallorca for USD 30. At that time, I could only afford a bus ride or to travel by car.

Nowadays flying is so flexible and easy. Low-cost airlines have changed the aviation business by making flying accessible for everybody. Some of those who have worked in aviation a lot longer than me might find it hard to adapt and change their mindset, but on the other hand, we work for our clients and have to serve them.

Do you have a favourite destination?

I became a father five months ago to a beautiful baby boy. My wife and I used to travel a lot – to the U.S., Malaysia, Iceland and Thailand, for example. Nowadays we prefer only airBaltic destinations. A few weeks ago we went to Sardinia. We really enjoyed that. The direct flight was so convenient. Our baby was calm and slept most of the time. We were a bit stressed about how everything would turn out, but it went really well. I wouldn’t say that I have one favourite destination. I simply like to travel with my family. In the summer I like to stay here because we have good weather and nice beaches with white sand. I like Liepaja’s beach on the west coast of Latvia and Nida in Lithuania.

As a child I travelled a lot with my family to many places where Aeroflot flew within the Soviet Union, because it wasn’t very easy to travel abroad. We used to fly to eastern destinations in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. It has been so much fun for me to go back to these places and visit them again. Some cities have hardly changed at all, while others have changed completely. In my memories, Baku was like a city in the sand. Now it has changed. Going to these places is like going back to my childhood. These places are unique, very different from destinations in Europe.

Do you have any hobbies?

I do a lot of sports. Since I am Lithuanian, I played basketball for a very long time. Basketball in Lithuania is a must. I also played tennis as a child, and my wife
continued playing it for a quite a long time. A couple of years ago, we thought it would be nice to start playing it again. We took it up seriously and now we play pretty often, so tennis is kind of an old and new hobby at the same time.

When I moved to Latvia, I started to play beach volleyball. It is very popular here and I also played it during my childhood. We play in Jūrmala together with my colleagues during the summer months, and we play in a closed arena during the wintertime. I would call this my new hobby, which I have brought to my friends in Lithuania, as we play there as well. During the winter I also like to ski. When it comes to hobbies, most of them are related to sports, which is my passion. BO