It's easy to understand why Szymany, a former military airstrip set amid dense forest in northeastern Poland, would have appealed to the CIA. According to reports by European investigators—never formally confirmed by the U.S. or Polish governments—the CIA from 2002 to 2005 used clandestine charter flights to bring "high-value" al-Qaeda suspects to Szymany, where they were interrogated and tortured at a nearby detention center.
Why an international airport is being built at Szymany is a little harder to fathom.
Local authorities are spending some 205 million zloty ($58 million), including more than $44 million in EU subsidies, to build runways and a new terminal that could accommodate more than 1 million passengers a year. The Olsztyn Mazury Airport is scheduled to open next January, but traffic and revenue forecasts developed by the project's backers are "very far from reality," says Jacek Krawczyk, a former chairman of LOT Polish airlines who advises the EU on aviation policy through its European Economic and Social Committee. He predicts the airport could close within 10 years.
Szymany adds to a burgeoning supply of costly new airports across Poland. Since 2007, the EU has spent more than €600 million ($666 million) to build or renovate a dozen Polish airports. That's 21 percent of all EU spending on airport infrastructure across the 28-nation bloc. In Szymany and elsewhere, new airports have been promoted by local authorities as a boon to tourism and economic development. Krzystof Pawlowski, commercial director of the new airport, says it will serve a region with some 2.5 million people, many of whom currently live hours from the nearest airline hub. The airport also will "open this beautiful region to tourists," says Pawlowski.
Mostly, though, Poland's new airports have been a financial bust. A report in December by the European Court of Auditors found that EU-subsidized airport projects in Poland, as well as others in Estonia, Greece, Italy, and Spain, had "produced poor value for money." Traffic at most airports fell far short of projections, and there was little evidence of broader economic benefits, such as job creation, the report found. Under EU rules, local authorities don't need approval from Brussels for airport projects, such as Szymany's, that receive less than €50 million in EU subsidies.
But the EU can claw back subsidies from projects it determines are economically unjustified. Last year, EU competition authorities ordered Poland to repay €22 million in aid for construction of an airport in Gdynia, in northern Poland. The new airport is 15.5 miles from the airport in Gdansk, which operates at only 60 percent capacity. Such projects "distort competition between airports and waste taxpayers' money," the EU said.
The irony is that Europe badly needs new airport capacity—just not in most of the places where it's being added. Air traffic across the EU is expected to double over the next 15 years, and major airports, such as London's Heathrow and Paris' Charles de Gaulle, are already heavily congested. "We spent a huge amount of money trying to move traffic from these hubs to regional airports, and it didn't work out," EU aviation adviser Krawczyk says.
Rather than drawing flights away from bigger airports, Europe's regional airports have tended to attract such low-cost carriers as Dublin-based Ryanair that generally don't fly to major airports. The discount airlines negotiate aggressively for cheap landing fees and other concessions. And unlike traditional airlines that offer connecting service through major hubs, the low-cost carriers can easily move to another airport if they don't get what they want. All that makes it difficult for small regional airports to operate profitably.
That hasn't dented hopes in Szymany, where construction crews are hard at work on infrastructure, including upgrades of a rail line linking the airport to the nearest city, Olsztyn, which is 37 miles away and has a population of 175,000. Spokesman Pawlowski estimates that up to 350,000 passengers will be using the airport each year by 2017. If so, that would be roughly equal to passenger traffic at the airport in Lodz, Poland's third-largest city. And Lodz's airport is struggling, after a costly EU-subsidized renovation failed to produce a forecasted increase in traffic.
In the end, the biggest losers at Szymany could be Polish taxpayers, who may have to pour in more subsidies to keep the airport open if it doesn't break even. Even the secret CIA flights to Szymany have proven costly for the Poles: The European Court of Human Rights recently ordered Warsaw to pay €230,000 to two al-Qaeda suspects whom the court determined had been tortured by the CIA at the Szymany site.