The Polish Vortex: LCCs love it. But why does populous, prospering Poland lack major aviation heft?

The Polish Vortex: LCCs love it. But why does populous, prospering Poland lack major aviation heft?The European Union’s five most populous countries—Germany, France, the U.K., Italy and Spain—are home to all but one of the continent’s top 10 airports (Amsterdam is the exception). This makes sense: the biggest countries have the busiest airports, in this case airports serving London, Paris, Frankfurt, Munich, Rome, Madrid and Barcelona.

But the next largest E.U. country? That’s where the pattern breaks. Poland, with nearly 40m people (Spain has 47m), has no airports with global scope or scale. Warsaw Chopin, its busiest, handled fewer than 11m passengers last year, not even enough to crack Europe’s top 30. Therein lies a paradox: Poland is big, with an economy growing faster than the E.U. average. But its airline sector remains small.

Why? One reason is the simple fact that Poland, one of the former Communist Bloc countries that didn’t join the E.U. until 2004, remains considerably poorer than its large counterparts to the west. According to the IMF, its GDP per person in U.S. dollars is about $14,000, compared to $30,000 in Spain, $35,000 in Italy, $41,000 in the U.K., $45,000 in France and $46,000 in Germany. So yes, Poland’s economy has expanded at a brisk annual average of 4% during the past decade and even grew nearly 2% in 2009, the heart of the global financial crisis. But it still has a lot of catching up to do.

One problem for Poland is that aside from Krakow, the country’s appeal as an inbound tourist market is limited. Poland attracts about 15m annual visitors nationwide, compared to more like 60m for Spain, whose population—remember—is only slightly larger than Poland’s. Unlike the citizens of most western European countries, Polish citizens need visas to visit the U.S., which is one reason that no U.S. carrier serves the country. Nor, for that matter, does any Asian carrier. Contrast this with the neighboring Czech Republic, whose resplendent capital Prague attracts the likes of Delta, Air Transat, Korean Air and Vietnam Airlines. Unlike any one city in Poland, Prague is at once its country’s wealthiest and most populous city as well as its biggest tourist draw.

Poland is not the only large European nation without a strong airline. But even in Spain, Iberia’s problems…

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