Poland will get a new central airport but neighbouring Belarus is going for decentralisation

15 June, 2018

The Polish Government has approved an act setting out principles and conditions for the preparation, financing and implementation of investments in the construction of the New Central Polish Airport, near the city of Łódź. But, in neighbouring Belarus the Government is talking a very different approach and finalising its strategy for the development of regional airports, with different ones designated for different traffic types.

The New Central Polish Airport project is undeniably an idea that other countries would do well to study, especially those that consistently bicker about whether airport infrastructure investment should go into the capital city's airport(s) or to the regions. The project focuses on integrating air and rail traffic into one node. The new airport is to be constructed on around 3000 hectares of land, with the facility and accompanying rail and road infrastructure representing investment of around PLN30 million (EUR7 million) to PLN35 million (EUR8.2 million).

SLIDE - The proposed location of Poland's proposed new hub airport is to the west of its current main international gateway of Frederic Chopin Airport near the capital WarsawSource: Presentation from LOT Polish Airlines president and CEO Rafał Milczarski at CAPA Airline CEOs in Sydney forum

It should provide almost unlimited capacity (as appropriate to the Polish market) and could help unlock the potential of Central & Eastern Europe's aviation industry, providing connectivity within those regions and to and from Western Europe and the rest of the world, as well as connectivity with other modes of transport. The airport is suitable for multiple parallel runway positioning and further long term development, with the potential for up to 100 million passengers per annum, two and a half times what the entire country's airports generate now.

Speaking at the recent CAPA - Centre for Aviation Airlines CEOs in Sydney forum, LOT Polish Airlines president and CEO Rafał Milczarski explained the new airport could help unlock the potential of Europe's aviation industry. But, one of the countries that does not appear to be studying the progress of the Polish airport is neighbouring Belarus.

MAP - Belarus has a 200 km border with Poland and its capital, Minsk, is situated roughly in the centre of the countrySource: GoogleMaps

Looking very differently to Poland, it appears though that the Belarus Government is finalising its strategy for the development of regional airports, with different ones designated for different traffic types. The strategy proposes the development of tourism at Brest Airport for example, particularly for visitors from China; the development of Gomel Airport in connection with Minsk National Airport, the development of Russian air services at Vitebsk Airport and of charter services at Grodno Airport.

Over the years, following the break-up of the British Airports Authority (BAA) it was often suggested that individual London airports could specialise in different types of traffic, for example Heathrow, full service/network; Gatwick low cost and charter; Stansted low cost and cargo, and indeed that has happened to an extent under diversified private ownership.

Belarus is a different proposition and it is not immediately obvious why airports and traffic should be designated in this manner. All the airports are owned and operated by 'State Aviation Department of Belarus Transport Ministry'. The Blue Swan Daily attempts to make some sense of the proposed strategy.

"The development of Gomel Airport in connection with Minsk National Airport" appears to mean that Gomel Airport, whose only route connects Moscow with Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast (enclave) to the southwest of Lithuania, will become a back-up airport for the Minsk Airport, with Minsk "determining the workload" of Gomel. It isn't easy to see how this would work given that the two are 250 km apart (indeed Gomel is close to the border with both Russia and the Ukraine).

One assumption may be that Gomel will provide back-up as infrastructure works are undertaken at Minsk, as was the case with Vilnius and Kaunas airports in Lithuania, all flights at the former being diverted to the latter for two months last year while Vilnius' runway was repaired. That would not have been easy until those airports, along with two others, were absorbed into SE Lithuanian Airports several years ago.

That looks to be the case as a second runway is under construction at Minsk and scheduled to open in Nov-2018, according to the CAPA Airport Construction Database.

CHART - Minsk National Airport has seen annual traffic levels grow over the current decade from just 1.2 million in 2010 to over 4 million last yearSource: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and Minsk National Airport reports

Brest is in the far southwest of the country, close to the Polish city of Lublin and the Ukrainian city of Lviv. There probably isn't a better example of a "well kept tourist secret" as the city of 350,000 is packed with history dating back to the 11th Century, and during which it has been part of Lithuania, Poland, Russia, the Soviet Union, Sweden, Germany and the Mongol Empire. Visitors from China are particularly attracted to it, possibly owing to that Mongol connection.

However, the only flights momentarily are to Kaliningrad's Khrabrovo Airport (Belavia) and to attract direct flights from China (presumably charters) the 2620m runway might need to be extended. There are no known construction works here presently.

Vitebsk's Vostochny Airport is in the far northeast of Belarus, within 50km of the Russian border close to Smolensk. Large parts of what is now Russia were once part of the Mongol Empire too but the rationale behind the selection of Vitebsk to handle Russian traffic is that the Smolensk Oblast does not have an international airport of its own. It is understood that "vigorous" negotiations are taking place with the Smolensk authorities to enable this cross-border co-operation.

The one that is most difficult to understand is Grodno Airport, which is situated in the far northwest, on the border with Poland and Lithuania. As a result it is close to Lithuanian (Vilnius and Kaunas) and Polish (Suwalki) airports, the latter a green field facility undergoing private development. Again, it's only services are irregular ones to and from Kaliningrad.

For these reasons it seems to be no more than a hopeful punt on the part of the Ministry to establish it as "charter airport", possibly to attract Lithuanian operators such as Small Planet Airlines. The city itself has a sizeable population of 370,000 to support selected charter flights, apart from its wider catchment area into the neighbouring countries.

So as Poland opts for centralisation Belarus takes a different path altogether. Could Belarus centralise by increasing capacity at Minsk and running train services there (it is a little smaller than Poland)? Lithuania has considered doing something similar. The technological requirements and cost might be too demanding for that. In some cases it is better to just make the most of what you've already got!