Castellón airport is an example of the problem.
Unusal facts about airports
Assistance- The best way of attracting flights to an airport is to pay the companies to operate there. Between 2007 and 2011, the different authorities spent nearly 250 million euuros on promoting airports. Since then, there has been little assistance and it tends to be camouflaged as tourist promotion: an aircraft may be named after a region, or advertising may be contracted, for example.
By plane to Eurovegas- Some people believe that Madrid still lacks enough airports: Barajas, Cuatro Vientos and Torrejón are not sufficient. A project exists to build another at El Álamo for just over 200 million euros. The excuse of the Olympic Games may no longer be valid, but Eurovegas could still be used as a reason, if Sheldon Adelson does not change his mind about the project.
Villa with a hangar- Can you imagine landing your plane, leaving the runway via a separate lane and driving straight to your house? This possibility, which once would only have been for the likes of John Travolta, was due to become reality at the Air Park de Alhama residential development in Murcia. The calculations, which were done in times of optimism, were based on the certainty that there would be huge interest: from pilots and other enthusiasts, enough to build more than 1,000 properties. In ten years, only three or four have been built.
The saddest statistics- The Huesca-Pirineos airport registered the most depressing figures in September. The 131 operations (arrivals and departures) only carried two passengers. The second worst figures were from Albacete: 34 flights transported 85 passengers.
It couldn’t have been a happy experience: the group of regional Socialist MPs had gone to the airport in Castellón to see with their own eyes how something that had cost more than 150 million euros was still not in operation. They were surprised to find that there was activity at the airport, and that surprise was logical, because that activity was not the movement of planes. It was a racing car that was hurtling at top speed down the runway. After they recovered from the shock, they realised that it wasn’t a delinquent who had managed to get onto the air field to do a few laps, but Roberto Merhi, a DTP driver –the German Racing Car Championship - who had been authorised to go there to train after having paid 3,000 euros plus IVA. That was in January this year. Afterwards, the team decided not to continue with the trials, to avoid controversy and because so much publicity placed in jeopardy the secrecy they needed for their preparations.
Right from the start, Castellón has been an unusual airport. You only have to recall the inaugural tour that the authorities took through the facilities, back in 2011, when the man who was the force behind the project, Carlos Fabra, the then president of the provincial government, said that in the absence of air traffic, “any citizen who so wishes can visit the airport and walk around it, something they could not do if aircraft were taking off”.
With this sentence, and without actually proposing it, Carlos Fabra was the first to bring about the idea of alternative uses for the airport, which has also been used for the presentation of the motorbike on which Álex Debón competed in the 250 cc, to see how far golfer Sergio García’s drive could send a ball and even as the venue for a ‘rave’ which ended up becoming a protest by about 50 members of Esquerra Unida about the waste of money... and also, the most original use, as a hunting field on which 600 rabbits were killed in one go. It was not until February this year that the first plane took off and landed at this airport, and that was only a test flight.
Undoubtedly, there has been some bad luck with regard to this airport, which has become a paradigm for the craziest years of the Spanish economy, but it now seems that, before it can start operating, works will have to be carried out so large aircraft can use it, and the Guardia Civil is accusing the falconer who is in charge of keeping the area free of animals of smuggling protected species. It makes you want to cry.
The history of the airport, which was supposed to become the entry point for thousands of tourists en route to Marina d’Or and the whole of the Castellón coast and which still has no opening date, did not serve as a warning to other private initiatives (all of which, in one way or another, end up being paid with public money), which are not exactly doing well at present. Ciudad Real is a good example of what happens when Hans Christian Andersen is put in charge of a producing a viability study: conceived as a point of arrival for visitors to the ‘Las Vegas of La Mancha’ (The Kingdom of Don Quixote, a complex with hotels, casinos and shops which never came to fruition), it is now closed. The most important thing to have taken place there was the filming of some scenes of Almodóvar’s film ‘Los amantes pasajeros’ and the series which recreated Spanair’s JK5022 plane crash. It cost one thousand million euros.
Nor are things going much better, at the moment, for Murcia´s second airport, built 35 kilometres from the San Javier airport for 266 million euros. There it waits, doors closed. The one in Lleida, which completes this group of private air bases, is at least open: it offeres two flights to Palma and two flights back each week, and it is supposed that in winter there will be an avalanche of British skiers to boost the account books. The inaugural flight (2010) was Lleida - Barcelona, operated by Vueling, which was supposed to enable people to connect with other flights all over the world. In fact, it has been used by many elderly people from Barcelona to make their first ever flight: they were taken to the airport by car, picked up at El Prat, and then went home again. Not bad for something that cost nearly one hundred million euros.
The airport at Teruel is the only exception, although the result of its 50 million euro investment is yet to be seen: it was planned for industrial use, and will be used as a centre for maintenance, storage and the recycling of aircraft.
Nor is the picture in the public sector very positive: the reduction in the number of airline passengers - an accumulated drop of 16.1 per cent during the first half of 2103 - has had a considerable impact on the airports which are managed by AENA, of which there are 46 as well as the heliports in Ceuta and Algeciras. On top of this is the unstoppable decline of Iberia, which was at one time considered a flagship company, but which continues to lose destinations and passengers: it is now the fourth in the country in terms of client numbers. As a result of all this, Barajas airport in Madrid, the indisputable king of the Spanish airports system, has now been beaten by Barcelona’s El Prat in terms of passenger numbers. If this is the situation at the top of the table, it is easy to guess what is happening lower down.
Is anything profitable?
“More or less, we can say that only the ten biggest airports in the country are profitable”, explains Javier Ortega Figueiral, a legal advisor in the field of aviation. “In Spain, even the small airports are structured like large ones. It is a bit like keeping a big restaurant open to serve one client a day: the staff have to be paid, the costs have to be met, the food has to be bought... in the end, it would be more economical to pay him to go and eat somewhere else”.
Aena includes in its Group III the airports which handle fewer than 500,000 passengers a year. There are 18 of these. Last year they were all affected by savings measures such as reducing the operating hours by adjusting them to flight times, and adjusting the services (cleaning, maintenance, security...) accordingly. Even so, it is difficult to support the infrastructure with this ridiculous level of activity. This is what happens when communities such as Galicia or the Basque Country are permitted to have three airports, or when the airports are at such short distances from each other, with five existing within a radius of 150 kilometres: there isn’t enough business for them all.
Logroño, to give one example, has one daily connection with Madrid: one flight there, and one flight back. And sometimes, not even that: in September, there were 45 flights which transported 846 passengers, so the average per flight was 18.8. To provide this service there have to be ten Aena employees, eight air traffic controllers working shifts, and all the subcontracted services such as cleaning, security and maintenance, as well as the Guardia Civil. The only possible consolation, if we look hard for one, is that this base ‘only’ cost 18 million euros.
What can be done? Ofelia Betancor, a professor at the University of Las Palmas, makes it clear: “When society is losing more than it earns by keeping an infrastructure (which should not have been built) open, then its partial or complete closure has to be considered”. Let’s see which one does that first.