Warsaw opens new air terminal in time for Schengen arrival



After two years of delay, Warsaw airport has opened a new terminal just in time for the arrival of Schengen passport-free travel at airports this Sunday in nine states that joined the zone in December.


Uncertainty over whether the new Terminal 2 would be ready for Sunday's Schengen take-off was the order of the day for the last three weeks.


Officials were no doubt hoping for a better start than that of London Heathrow airport's new Terminal 5. Hundreds of flights have been cancelled there since it opened on Thursday due to logistical problems.


Wrangling between builders and Polish authorities delayed the launch of the gleaming building, leaving passengers crammed in older terminals.


Local media slammed the endless delays as one of the most serious scandals in Poland's infrastructure sector since the end of communism in 1989 – in a country that is still scrambling to create a real highway network, modern railways, railway stations and bridges.


The consortium that built the terminal had been led by Spain's Ferrovial, but the company was removed from the project in October over a controversy centred on fire safety.


PPL airport consortium pointed to the urgency of opening the terminal in time to meet the March 30 advent of passport-free travel at airports in Schengen newcomer states and Poland's obligation to the zone's 23 other members.


It also said Ferrovial gave no guarantee that technical glitches at the terminal could be fixed in time.


The fire brigade had refused to give a green light for the terminal to open due to a faulty alarm system – the sound of sirens was drowned out by the noise of fans designed to suck out smoke in case of a blaze.


PPL chose a different company to complete the work and fire prevention authorities gave the terminal their seal of approval in time for Schengen expansion.


"The fundamental obstacle was removed and we were able to press ahead," PPL director general Michal Marzec said.


"Thanks only to a huge effort by work continuing around the clock were we able to open the terminal," Marzec said. "It is certainly the case that the March 30 deadline pushed us."


Without success, passengers would have been crammed into the old terminal or forced to wait outside in snow or rain in front of a communist-era terminal resurrected to serve budget airlines.


"It's all in the past. Everything is ready and everything is working well," Marzec said.


Over the last week charter flights to the United States and Canada departed from the new Terminal 2. As of Sunday, it will serve European flights including those to other Schengen zone states.


Domestic flights will begin to take off from the terminal on April 8.


Warsaw airport expects to serve well over 10 million passengers this year. With a maximum capacity of 15 million passengers per year, the new facility is on par with Prague and larger than Budapest, Marzec said.


Despite being the capital of the largest country in the region, Warsaw stands in second spot behind Prague in terms of air passenger traffic. Having served 12.4 million passengers last year, the Czech capital's airport is Central Europe's largest.


After making headlines for the wrong reasons for months, Warsaw airport authorities decided to open the shiny new Terminal 2 quietly.


As of midnight Saturday, Malta and eight fellow 2004 European Union entrants – ex-communist Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia – will all drop passport checks for air passengers who are Schengen state citizens.


The move puts the final touch to the expansion of the Schengen zone which first saw the end of border checks at land and maritime frontiers in newcomer states last December 20.


The Schengen passport free travel zone comprises 22 EU member states plus non-EU nations Iceland and Norway.


Cyprus, which also entered the EU in 2004, and Switzerland, which is not an EU member, are expected to join at the end of the year.


Having entered the EU in 2007, Bulgaria and Romania agreed in January to be Schengen-ready by 2011. (AFP)