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Poland aims to be gateway to Asia

Poland is banking on booming passenger and cargo traffic to help turn its planned transportation hub into a key European gateway to Asia and is open to looking for Asian partners to help finance

 

The EU’s largest eastern economy plans to plow as much as 35 billion zlotys (US$9.42 billion) by 2027 into building a 45-million passenger airport, making it the largest transportation hub in central and eastern Europe.

Adding planned train and highway links to the first stage could double the final initial cost.

The project is set to be “the biggest undertaking in Poland’s modern history,” even before planned later extensions that would put it at a par with London’s Heathrow Airport, the largest in Europe.

“The plan is to create a hub for the region’s passengers, who now have to travel through Germany, France or the UK when they go on longer flights,” Polish Deputy Minister of Infrastructure Mikolaj Wild, the official in charge of the project, said in an interview in Warsaw on Friday last week.

“One of the biggest advantages of the airport, and Poland as a country, is to be located on the eastern flank of the EU. We’re the gateway from the EU to the east and the other way around,” Wild said.

The planned airport, to be 45km from the capital, has drawn criticism from opposition parties, as well as from Michael O’Leary, who runs Ryanair Holdings PLC — Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier.

O’Leary has said that Poland does not need a “shiny cathedral in the middle of nowhere” to service growing numbers of airline customers.

Wild countered O’Leary’s argument by saying that the project would be profitable with just two runways, one terminal and the necessary links.

As the air and rail hub alone is to cost as much as US$5 billion in the first stage, the government might need to look for minority investors.

“Asian expertise in greenfield airports can’t be underestimated” and that is why “it’s natural to look for partners out there,” Wild said.

Countries like South Korea and Singapore are “very good at building and managing airports — it’s like a national sport for them,” he said.

There are also “many” potential partners for political cooperation as well, because the hub might be considered a geopolitical project due to its sheer scale, Wild added.

While it is too early to reveal the details, the government has seen “great interest” from financial institutions, including from infrastructure funds that would be willing to buy a stake, Wild said.

The government’s Polish Development Fund is considering becoming a partner, he said, adding that Warsaw is to tap budget resources, debt and EU funds to finance the plans.

Eventually, the goal is to expand the airport by two more runways and two terminals to service as many as 100 million passengers. The additional 40 billion zlotys are needed to connect it by rail with more cities.

In the final stage, 70 percent of all long-haul trains in Poland would pass through the airport.

Although the hub would not be able to compete for passengers with the largest European airports, such as Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, it could become its direct rival for cargo such as perishables, of which the central and eastern Europe region is a major supplier.

The railway component is “much sounder than in other comparable investments,” Wild said. “It will be like combining the Berlin Hauptbahnhof and let’s say an airport of the size of Gatwick.”

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