Poles Apart - How airlines have helped build Poland's connectivity

The aviation sector in Poland plays an important role in the country’s economy and its network connectivity is unrecognisable today to that when the country joined the European Union in 2004, around 15 years after the end of communist rule. Routesonline investigates how point-to-point connectivity has helped put the country’s developing regional cities on the network map.

Poland is able to boast over 100 years of history and tradition in the aviation industry, and more than 80 years of experience of aircraft production and aviation personnel training thanks to a well-trained labour force.  The resistance of the country’s aviation industry to the turbulence of the world economy is partly due to the large number of small and medium-sized businesses, including family businesses that continue to supply parts and machinery to aircraft manufacturers across the globe.

Over the past 20 years, the volume of aircraft production on the global market has doubled in Poland and it now counts over 120 aviation and aviation-related companies employing more than 25,000 skilled workers in one of the most innovative sectors in the country’s economy.

The past decade has seen an influx of large aerospace companies from Western Europe and North America into the Podkarpacie region of Poland, centred around the southeastern city of Rzeszow. Now dubbed ‘Aviation Valley’, the area has been at the heart of Poland’s aerospace sector since the late 1930s and is now being revitalised by new companies from outside the region setting up shop there.

Now, its aviation connectivity is befitting its aviation pedigree with improved connectivity providing Polish-based businesses with greater access to foreign markets, encouraging exports, and at the same time increases competition and choice in the home market from foreign-based producers.

Over a decade on from its accession to the European Union and the boost the Polish economy has enjoyed thanks to membership is clear to see thanks to its booming exports, which mostly head to other EU countries. A year before accession, Poland generated an annual GDP of £130 billion; by 2013, that figure had grown to £305 billion. Meanwhile, GDP per capita has risen from 44 per cent of the EU average on accession to over 65 per cent today and is forecast to reach 74 per cent by 2020.

Local economic studies show that if the country had not joined the European Union its GDP per capita in purchasing power standards would have been around four years behind where it is today.  This would have been lower by eleven per cent relative to the EU-27 average.

But, it is not just Poland's economy that has changed; the country's citizens have as well.  A generation of Poles now have the opportunity to travel and study all over Europe, while the free movement of workers and international employment opportunities have seen economic migration across the continent.  This has helped develop the new air services that have become a framework to a better connected Poland.

Poland actually opened its doors to better access into key European markets before European Union accession when it amended its existing bilateral air service agreements with Denmark, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom in 2003.  Further liberalisation has brought a major transformation to the Polish air transport market since May 2004.

Since 2004, the number of passengers handled by Polish airports has been growing by about 20 – 30 per cent per year, while in the early years of the Century ahead of the market changes the growth was just around nine per cent. 

Over the past ten years available international seat capacity from Poland has almost doubled, rising 72.1 per cent between 2006 and 2015, according to data from schedules provider, OAG. This has seen a move from a historical Warsaw-centric strategy focused on the hub-and-spoke operations of national carrier LOT Polish Airlines, a legacy from Communist times, to a more point-to-point offering with direct air links now being offered to an increasing number of international markets from outside of the capital city. 

Poland’s accession to the European Union benefited both foreign tourists who are interested in visiting the country, but also Poles travelling abroad for holidays. To support this demand we have seen the construction of two brand new green-field airports: Lublin and Modlin.  Meanwhile, new international connectivity is now also being offered from cities such as Radom-Sadków after a former military airport in central Poland was converted for commercial operations.

The largest international growth this past decade has been at Rzeszów’s Jasionka Airport in southeastern Poland where the number of flights are up by an average of 39.5 per cent per annum and "Solidarity" Szczecin Goleniów Airport in the northeast of the country, where an average annual growth of 34.2 per cent has been recorded. 

Double-digit annual growth in international flight activity has also been seen at Bydgoszcz Ignacy Jan Paderewski Airport (20.5 per cent), Gdańsk Lech Wałęsa Airport, serving Poland's principal seaport on the Baltic coast (14.0 per cent), Łódź Władysław Reymont Airport 13.3 per cent) and Wrocław’s Copernicus Airport (10.7 per cent).

The main driver of this growth has been the arrival of low-cost carriers into the Polish market and the formation of local entities like Wizz Air, which has established a commanding position across Central and Eastern European markets.  The two budget operators are already the largest airline brands in the country by international departure capacity and will likely overtake the recently restructured LOT Polish Airlines this year in terms of flight departures.

The Polish market has contributed significantly to Wizz Air's success with around 40 per cent of its phenomenal growth linked to Polish customers and visitors in and out of the country.  The airline last year celebrated carrying its 100 millionth passenger across in network during its eleven years of operation.  The airline’s most popular route over this period has been its link between the Polish capital, Warsaw and London Luton, the largest point across its network.

The airline currently has aircraft based in Gdańsk, Katowice, Poznan, Warsaw and Wroclaw and last year served 54 different international destinations from the country, up from just 24 ten years earlier in 2006.

Alongside expanding its network into European capitals, Ryanair is now looking to squeeze Wizz Air’s margins in Central and Eastern European markets through the growth of its own activities across the region.  After a rapid rise in Poland up until 2013, it contracted slightly in 2014, but returned to growth last year offering over 22,000 flights from eleven Polish airports to 47 different destinations.  Its largest network points are the new Warsaw Modlin Airport and Krakow’s John Paul II International Airport, which account for 31.0 and 24.9 per cent of its scheduled offering from the country, respectively.

While initially driving the mobility for Polish citizens, many of these new air services are now supporting the strong Polish communities that have now developed across other European countries. The 2015 edition of EuroStat’s ‘People in the EU: who are we and how do we live?’ study shows that more than 10 per cent of those born in Poland now live abroad in another European Union member state, the fourth largest share among its membership after Cyprus, Ireland and Luxembourg.

In fact, according to the population and housing census, more than one fifth (22.0 per cent) of all the residents born in a European Union member state but living in other member state originate from Poland. By far the largest community, in absolute terms, is the Polish-born community living in Germany (an estimated 2.7 million people), while there are an additional 654,000 Polish-born residents in the United Kingdom (the fourth largest such community). There are also sizeable contingents all over Western Europe and Scandinavia.

The accession of Poland into the European Union and the introduction of a more liberal aviation sector has changed the demographics of the country forever.  But, with enhanced point-to-point services from expanding low-cost carriers, Polish citizens are enjoying the best connectivity the country has ever seen.