Nine airports join Schengen zone
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Completing their ascension into the EU, Malta and several eastern bloc nations dropped passport checks for Schengen citizens at their airports on Sunday, putting the final touch to the expansion of the zone to 24 countries. (Report: K Williams)
Border checks at airports in nine Schengen area newcomers, mostly from the ex-communist bloc, vanished at midnight Sunday, allowing 400 million people passport-free travel in the 24-country zone.
Malta and eight fellow 2004 European Union entrants -- ex-communist Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia -- all dropped passport checks for air passengers who are Schengen state citizens.
The move put 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.
Most have seized the opportunity created by Schengen entry to upgrade airports that have benefited from a boom in passenger traffic since EU entry.
After two years of delay, Warsaw airport opened a new terminal just in time for the event. 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.
"It's a very important day," Michal Marzec, director of Poland's PPL airports operator, told AFP.
"We're completing our accession to the Schengen zone," he said.
Tallinn, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest have expanded existing airports, building new terminals in line with Schengen rules. Most notably, airports were required to create areas which physically separate passengers from Schengen and non-Schengen zone states for identity checks.
Airports that did not adopt the measures failed to qualify for Schengen status.
Warsaw opened its new Schengen-standard terminal at the last minute a week ago, overcoming numerous delays which plagued the facility that is expected to receive 12 million passengers each year.
Having served 12.4 million passengers last year, the newcomers' largest airport at Prague-Ruzine recently opened its new Schengen standard terminal.
In Europe's ex-communist east, the expansion of the Schengen zone from 15 to 24 states is seen as the final step in dismantling the Iron Curtain, a process that began with the collapse of the region's regimes starting in 1989.
Since last December's abolition of land and maritime border controls between the 15 older Schengen members and the newcomers, citizens from the entire zone can travel thousands of kilometres (miles) from Norway to Portugal without a single border check.
Ahead of Schengen expansion, the newcomers had to introduce a string of measures to get ready.
They included a single Schengen visa regime for citizens of other countries seeking to enter any zone member's territory, more cross-border police cooperation, an expansion of the so-called SIS integrated criminal database and the creation of joint patrols aimed at sealing off 9,000 kilometres (5,580 miles) of external borders to illegal migrants.
The Schengen zone -- which takes its name from a village in Luxembourg where five founder-member governments agreed in 1985 to create it -- now 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.
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