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Poland's flights of fancy?

Jo Harper
October 8, 2018

The chief executive of Polish flagship airline LOT says his country needs a new mega-airport to show Poland means business. DW asks who would pay for it and whether it would make economic sense at all.

Warsaw's Chopin airport
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Skarzynski

The Central Airport (Centralny Port Lotniczy or CPL), as the project is called, would be situated in the Baranow district between Warsaw and Lodz, 15 minutes from Warsaw's central station by train.

"It's the biggest under­taking in the modern history of Poland," said Deputy Infrastructure Minister Mikolaj Wild, who is overseeing the project. It could be "the gateway from the EU to the east," he added.

Read more: Trump welcomes Poland's request for permanent US military base

The 70 billion zloty ($19 billion, €16.5 billion) airport would handle 45 million passengers a year, rising to 100 million, to rival Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol. The first phase of the project would cost 35 billion zlotys, or more than 10 percent of Poland's national budget.

Built on 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of land, it is scheduled to open in 2027. A new town by the airport, with business parks and a congress center, is also planned.

Government dreams

The plans would mean closing the popular Frederic Chopin Airport in Warsaw. Officials say expanding Chopin makes little sense, because it's inside Warsaw's city limits, with hundreds of thousands of people living nearby.

With 15.75 million passengers in 2017, Chopin Airport is the busiest in Central and Eastern Europe after overtaking Prague's Vaclav Havel Airport, according to Airports Council International.

A LOT Boeing 787 Dreamliner
Polish airports last year serviced nearly 34 million passengers, 12 percent more than in 2015, according to the country's Civil Aviation AuthorityImage: Reuters

"Our country is located at the intersection of routes between major metropolises such as Los Angeles–Tel Aviv, Vienna–Tokyo, Shanghai–Paris and New York–Tehran," according to a government resolution adopted in November 2017. Without the airport, Poland will struggle to compete with western European countries on the aviation market and "be condemned to the second league," it added.

"Since 2000, the number of scheduled flights operating from Warsaw has increased from 36,644 flights per annum to 83,292 with the number of seats increasing from 3.536 million to 10.465 million over that time; by any standards strong and continuous growth over a long time period," said John Grant from OAG Aviation, a provider of digital flight information.

"It would seem sensible to be considering the new airport development if the full benefits of an airport are to be realized in the coming years in terms of economic growth, global connectivity and the wider competitiveness of both Warsaw and LOT Polish Airlines," he added.

The funding

But the government has so far been vague about where the money will come from. The head of the Polish Development Fund, PFR, Pawel Borys, said in 2017 that the state-owned financial group had a rough plan for financing the investment which would not burden the state budget. He added that the fund had the capital to take part in the project.

Meanwhile, Deputy Infrastructure Minister Wild has suggested that non-airport components could be financed from EU funds. But the European Commission closely monitors airport projects to ensure compliance with state aid rules.

According to Anna Konert, director of the Institute of Aviation at Lazarski University, the megaproject has no chance for EU funding and would have to be fully covered by taxation.

"As with any infrastructure project, there are a lot of risks associated," she told DW. "Costs and affordability are obviously some of them."

In June, Wild also reportedly held talks with Singaporean companies about financing the project. He said at the time that China and South Korea were also potential partners. Singapore's Changi Airport, which has leisure and recreational facilities such as cinemas, swimming pools and gardens, could serve as an example, he said. The idea for the new airport was in fact borne out of the government's efforts to develop large-scale trade cooperation with China.

During a visit to China in 2017, Wild said Beijing was open to talks on the airport as it develops its "Belt and Road" initiative aimed at boosting its international trade ties, although to date there have been no reports of any Chinese commitment.

The critics

Opposition candidate for Warsaw mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, said that development in Warsaw will suffer if Chopin is closed. Others say the money would be better spent on highways, rail lines and updating Chopin and another airport 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Warsaw that's served by Ryanair.

"In my view, the existing cost estimations are understated and the real cost will be higher," said Jacek Krawczyk, president of the Employers' Group at the European Economic and Social Committee, and a former chairman of LOT's supervisory board. "Moreover, it is less about financing the construction and more about ensuring that the airport is profitable in the future."

The hub could also prove detrimental for the regional airports that have grown since Poland joined the EU in 2004. "The idea of a central airport contradicts the decentralized model for aviation successfully developed in Poland," added Krawczyk, warning that it could "cannibalize" traffic from regional airports, putting their future at risk.

Ryanair, which has a roughly 30 percent share in the Polish market warned the new airport could face the same fate as its German equivalent. Berlin's new airport, initially due to open in 2011, has been beset by technical problems and is scheduled to be completed in the second half of 2020.

"But showing Berlin as a negative example is unfair," said Bartosz Baca from BBSG, an aviation market analyst. "We are talking about one of the biggest investment failures in post-war Germany. There are many pathologies in Berlin which do not have to be repeated in Poland," he argued.

Throwing in their LOT

But Poland's LOT has also been through a lot lately. After being rescued from bankruptcy in 2012, the company has been able to grow. But with a projected 9 million passengers this year, LOT is only Europe's 19th-largest airline and isn't even the biggest airline in its home market, with discounters Wizz Air and Ryanair both carrying more passengers to Poland.

LOT's fleet of 73 airplanes includes 11 Boeing Dreamliners that it uses to serve Polish enclaves such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, as well as routes to Asia. Last year it launched several new long-haul flights, including to Astana. This year 12 more new connections from Warsaw are planned, including to Singapore.