Putin's war turned this little Polish airport upside down. It rose to the challenge.
Rzeszów-Jasionka Airport is just 50 miles from Poland's border with Ukraine.
The once quiet airport is now a hub for heavy weapons, international aid, and medical evacuations.
Staff are "running on adrenaline" as they welcome refugees, soldiers, and VIPs from Bono to Biden.
Adam Hamryszczak realized something big was happening when US military personnel started turning up at his office.
It was January 2022, a month before Russia invaded Ukraine, and he was the president of Rzeszów-Jasionka, a small airport in a sleepy town in southeast Poland.
It's only the eighth-busiest airport in Poland, having served some 730,000 passengers in 2022. In comparison, New York's JFK Airport served more than 4 million passengers in January alone.
But the unremarkable airport, which usually ferried Polish travelers to its capital, Warsaw, or to countries including Italy and Croatia, was about to become extraordinary.
Ukraine has been a no-fly zone since the war started. So, because of Rzeszów-Jasionka's location just 50 miles from Poland's — and NATO's — border with the country, traveling to or from Ukraine by air means going through the little Polish airport.
It's now a hub for heavy weapons, international aid, and high-profile passengers like US President Joe Biden, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Richard Branson, Sean Penn, and Bono — while still serving regular passengers who travel alongside missiles, soldiers, refugees, and medical-evacuation teams.
The war thrust airport staff into a new reality as soon as it started. Hamryszczak said in December that they have been "running on adrenaline".
He told Insider: "I realized that a great challenge was ahead of us and that any mistake on our part couldn't be an option."
'We only slept for a few hours per night'
The first batch of US troops arrived at the airport on February 5, 2022.
They were some of the 1,700 soldiers — mostly paratroopers — deployed to provide security in Poland as Russia massed its troops along Ukraine's borders. They're still there today.
"We only slept for a few hours per night," Hamryszczak told Insider, explaining the transition as his workers scrambled to arrange transport for military cargo and medical evacuations — all while maintaining the flow of ordinary travelers on budget European carriers such as Ryanair.
The airport hired extra workers from the nearby Lviv Danylo Halytskyi International Airport in Ukraine, which has been shuttered since the country closed its airspace.
Hamryszczak told Insider that he had to rise to "countless" challenges, including making complex arrangements with world leaders and welcoming the world's media. "They certainly don't teach about this in MBAs," he joked.
Missile-defense systems and US troops are now an everyday sight
The US sent two of its Patriot missile-defense systems — considered among the world's best — to Rzeszów-Jasionka in March 2022 to counter any threat to NATO countries, according to US European Command.
Pointing to the skies behind a wire fence at the airport's perimeter, the Patriots offer a "sobering" welcome to civilian travelers, one visitor commented on Twitter.
They've even become a tourist draw, according to Konrad Fijołek, the mayor of Rzeszów: "We joke that it's our main attraction."
He told Insider that the airport's global prominence has placed Rzeszów on the map: "Our city used to be on the outskirts of Poland and on the outskirts of Europe. Now, I say to our guests: Welcome to the center of Europe."
Rzeszów-Jasionka has welcomed international VIPs
President Joe Biden landed at Rzeszów-Jasionka on Air Force One for the first time on March 25, 2022.
Air Force One is "the most famous aircraft that has ever visited our airport," Hamryszczak said. He told Insider that "several days" of security inspections preceded its arrival, and a second visit from Biden, for an unannounced visit to Ukraine, was "conducted in great secrecy" in February.
The attention has also boosted the area's local businesses. Biden was filmed eating a pizza at Pizzeria Gusto, a pizza restaurant that's a 10-minute drive from the airport, while visiting the troops at Rzeszów-Jasionka.
Damian Drupka, a co-owner of Pizzeria Gusto, told Insider that Biden's first visit was a "big deal" for locals, so he'd been watching TV coverage, and when he spotted his own pizza boxes, he "couldn't believe it."
Biden had the pepperoni pizza with jalapeño peppers, which left him dabbing his eyes and asking for water.
Drupka renamed the pizza the "Spicy Joe" in Biden's honor. It now comes decorated with a miniature US flag and was Pizzeria Gusto's second-most popular pizza in 2022, according to Drupka. About a fifth of his pizza sales now come from troops at Rzeszów-Jasionka, he said.
The same month as Biden's visit, the actor Sean Penn landed at Rzeszów-Jasionka to promote his CORE Foundation's work supporting refugees from Ukraine.
Bono and The Edge from U2 arrived in May, followed by the billionaire Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson in June. President Zelenskyy of Ukraine passed through in December on his way to speak to Congress.
"I'm sure most employees will tell their grandchildren about these visits one day," Hamryszczak said.
Rzeszów-Jasionka has also become a hub for Ukrainians traveling — or fleeing — overseas. At one point, at least one in three of Rzeszów's residents were from Ukraine.
The airport is also a hub for medical evacuations
Rzeszów-Jasionka has also played a big role in emergency-medical evacuations from Ukraine.
Adam Szyszka manages the local Medevac hub, which gives accommodation and care to people injured in the war before personnel take them to specialist medical centers around Europe.
Cancer patients from Ukraine also transfer through the airport because the war has damaged many of the country's hospitals, or they are facing power outages, which can interrupt lifesaving treatment.
Szyszka has spent two decades working as a paramedic. He told Insider: "Even for me, as a professional medical provider, it's difficult to keep my emotions under control, because here in Poland we're in a situation where we're trying to support our neighbors."
The European Commission, which works with Ukraine's health ministry, coordinates evacuation flights. "We're just a small part of a huge international process," Szyszka said.
Rzeszów-Jasionka wants to remain a civilian destination as well as a military hub
Even with a war raging next door, Hamryszczak is eager to keep welcoming passengers to Rzeszów-Jasionka.
His mission seems to be going well: the airport welcomed a record-breaking 97,000 passengers in July last year.
In December, the aviation organization CAPA crowned it the Small Airport of the Year, recognizing its "ability to rise to the circumstances thrust upon it," CAPA said.
"This is no longer the same regional airport that operated in 2021, or even before the pandemic," Hamryszczak told Insider. "A lot has changed."
The influx of refugees, soldiers, and missile systems at the airport was initially a shock, but it's now part of its day-to-day operations.
As Hamryszczak noted, "Modern history is being written, to some extent, before our eyes."
Read the original article on Business Insider