In 2003 when Irish budget carrier, Ryanair first approached airport authorities in Kraków for permission to launch regular international flights to points across Europe they were reluctant to agree a commercial contract with the carrier. Poland was still living in the legacy of years of Communist rule and despite its impending accession to the European Union there remained a reluctance to change from the safe environment that had served the nation well for many years.
At this time the airport was handling a little over 500,000 annual passengers with a very limited network of flights. Fast-forward to today and a more liberal outlook embracing new opportunities, particularly those offered by low-cost carriers, means that the facility, which honours long-time Kraków resident, Pope John Paul II, has emerged as one of the fastest growing airports across Europe.
Last year, Kraków Airport welcomed a record 4,221,171 passengers, up eleven per cent on the previous year, and it is using this as a platform for further expansion in the year ahead. It has already announced seven new scheduled and four new charter destinations for 2016 and forecasts traffic to exceed 4.5 million for the full calendar year.
Ryanair has grown to now offer more than 30 routes from Kraków, which has served as a base for its growing operation since March 2013. New flights were introduced to Las Palmas, Tenerife in the Canary Islands, as well as Ovda Airport in Israel last year while frequencies were increased across a significant number of its existing markets.
Other low-cost carriers have identified the potential Kraków offers for point-to-point travellers both in the form of city break leisure passengers and those doing business in wider Małopolska, one of the leading regions in Poland in terms of economic and investment potential. easyJet now serves the city from nine destinations, Norwegian from six Nordic and Scandinavian airports, while airberlin, Eurowings, Jet2.com and Vueling also have a presence.
While the low-cost boom dominated growth at Kraków during the first decade of Poland’s European Union membership, the network carriers are now leading the way. In the past couple of years, Swiss International Air Lines and British Airways have resurrected flights to Zurich and London, the latter launching a link from Heathrow Airport last year rather than a previous Gatwick Airport service. KLM has also introduced a connection to its Amsterdam hub and Alitalia to Rome, while Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Finnair and Lufthansa all provide connection options via their own hubs.
This year Iberia will introduce a twice weekly connection between Kraków and Madrid between June 20, 2016 and September 17, 2016 through its Iberia Express brand, a market that was previously flown by its regional partner Air Nostrum. Other new summer 2016 links include Aegean Airlines to Athens; easyJet to Milan Malpensa Norwegian to Bristol and SAS Scandinavian Airlines to Copenhagen.
The airport is forecasting a nine percent rise in passenger traffic for 2016 and could reach double-digit growth if discussions on further winter routes come to fruition. “We are working to develop eastbound routes and enlist a carrier offering long-distance flights,” Pawel Galiak, aviation services manager, Kraków Airport told Routesonline during a recent interview.
“We are constantly looking to expand our schedule and charter services. It is extremely important for us to maintain stable growth in our existing European market, including key transfer airports located in capitals as well as cities with a special business, tourist, cultural and ethnic potential and attractive locations in the Mediterranean basin and also Scandinavian region,” said Galiak.
The airport is understood to be particularly targeting a direct transatlantic link to North America with Chicago considered the most likely destination, further growth in the western European markets of France, Germany and Portugal, the Eastern European markets of Russia and Ukraine, as well as the Middle East with flydubai, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines understood to be key targets.
“Diversification of airlines is a key element of our strategy. We are focused not only on attractive destinations, but also on the high standard of passenger service,” explained Galiak.
“We listen to our stakeholders very carefully, welcoming feedback and suggestions for improvement. The most important groups are carriers, passengers and local tourism authorities. We understand that providing transparent and equal conditions for everyone are crucial in achieving balanced network,” he added.
To support the increased traffic, Kraków Airport is involved in a major landside investment project covering the extension and modernisation of the passenger terminal, reconstruction of the internal transportation system and construction of a train station. The first stage of this was completed in late September 2015 with the official opening of a renovated terminal structure as well as a direct train connection to the city centre.
This project has tripled the terminal area and has permitted much improved service standards for passengers and will enable the airport to boost its non-aviation income from retailers that have expanded their offer in the new airport premises.
The developments have also enhanced the airport offer to the needs of its growing network airline base with the addition of new contact airbridge gates for both Schengen and Non-Schengen passengers. Once completed the new terminal will consist of 18 gates, 35 check-in desks, three air bridges and four baggage claim carousels.
The direct rail link, restored after a two-year break, provides a connection between the airport and the city centre in only 18 minutes. The service operates twice an hour and passengers arriving at the airport are able to reach the departure gates directly from the station, walking over a footbridge that links the terminal with the car park.
These investments mean that infrastructure is now in place to meet the rising demand for air access to Kraków and mean that a city which is one of Poland's most important economic centres and the economic hub of the Lesser Poland (Małopolska) region now has a facility the befits its emergence as one of Europe’s leading destinations.
With a growing private sector and home to an increasing number of large multinational companies, Kraków now has the business links to support more business links. While, the Małopolska Region attracts nine million tourists each year, with Kraków offering 1,004 cultural institutions including museums, galleries, cinemas, theatres and music facilities. In addition, there are eight sites from the Małopolska Region that are UNESCO World Heritage sites, three of which are located in Kraków, providing important leisure flows to complement the business demand.