Lithuania suggests shared Baltic state plane

By bne IntelliNews April 22, 2013

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Lithuania and Estonia could set up a joint venture to operate an aircraft that would be used for official visits of heads of state, PM Algirdas Butkevicius told a local radio station. However, the proposal - based on compromise amongst political egos - vies with years of failure to agree on pan-Baltic projects.

The Lithuanian president's trip on a budget airline last week sparked debate over the country's lack of a state aircraft. However, constrained as the budget is by one of the world's most famous austerity drives, the prime minister suggested on April 19 Vilnius should share an official jet with Estonia.

Lithuania has never had its own state air transport, despite gaining independence over 20 years ago. Amidst the much heralded Baltic austerity, that fact was brought back to mind on April 17, when President Dalia Grybauskaite posted a photo on her Facebook page showing her aboard a Wizz Air flight headed to the London funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Butkevicius commented that he does not rule out buying an aircraft for heads of state, but that could be difficult to square with the continued sacrifices being asked of the population, despite the resumed growth of the economy. He appears to have considered that with his new suggestion.

"We have started negotiations with Estonian Air on one side and the Mayor of Vilnius Arturas Zuokas on the other side, over the possibility of setting up such a joint venture. The company would operate an aircraft that would be used by our country's leaders," Butkevicious told Ziniu Radijas, adding that the plane would not only be used by the countries' presidents. Erkki Raasuke, chairman of supervisory board of Estonian Air, said that it was too early to comment on the proposal, but confirmed that bilateral discussions were being held with Lithuania.

While the suggestion of sharing a state plane appears to make perfect sense given the close proximity of the Baltic states, their size, and limited finances, those same parameters stand for many pan-regional issues. In particular, along with Latvia, the trio has been trying to agree on shared gas and power projects for years, but have failed to agree on even the most basic points.

Projects tend to hit a brick wall as soon as the question of location crops up - they all want the honor of hosting the facilities. A regional liquified natural gas (LNG) platform is on the cards, but has been delayed for so long that it risks losing the funding the EU has offered to help build the project. The trio of Baltic neighbours eventually asked the EU to decide for them. Consultants from Brussels plumped for Estonia, but if the facility does go ahead, its now likely to be located in Finland, for no really good reason other than it stops the quarrels.

Add this natural competitiveness between the states to the ego to be found in any country's political class, and a shared state aircraft looks to have a good chance of creating a lot more fuss than its worth perhaps.

Lithuania has also suggested several times that the three should get together to form a pan-Baltic flag carrier, as Estonian Air and airBaltic limp through permanent financial crisis - at far greater cost to their respective states than operating a single aircraft. That said, Lithuania is the only one of the three without a national airline.

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