IGNASI JORRO / VÍCTOR RECACHA
The investment that the project would bring is an opportunity for recovery, but it generates reticence among those who are committed to fleeing the tourist model and diversifying the economy.
The proposed expansion of El Prat airport has fuelled the controversy over the pillars on which the Catalan economy should be built in the coming years. While the project would involve an investment of some 1.7 billion euros, which has aroused great interest among the business community and various institutions, the most critical voices are calling for a move away from the model of mass tourism and towards diversification with the development of sectors such as the green economy.
The initiative comes at a time of economic crisis with a major impact on industries such as aviation and tourism, which is why an investment of this magnitude is seen by many economic agents as an opportunity for reactivation that would place Barcelona as one of the main airport hubs in Europe. However, some politicians and environmentalists argue that higher quality employment can be created in other sectors, and that doing so is crucial for environmental and social sustainability.
Carles Ruiz, Mayor of Viladecans, highlights the stimulus that this investment would bring to both the territory and the Catalan economy as a whole. “The debate is not about Barcelona airport, it is about whether Spain has one or two air hubs,” he says. “Now there is an opportunity for there to be two hubs in Spain and for the Spanish airport system to be one of the most important in Europe. One of them should be Barcelona,” he said.
Although for Ruiz this boost for local employment and the country’s economic activity is essential, he qualifies that the mistakes of the last expansion, completed in 2009, cannot be repeated. In particular, he believes that “the condition we must set is that this conversion must mean that the system of natural spaces must be better” and more extensive than the current one, in the same way that he believes it is necessary to strengthen agricultural production and “guarantee that problems do not increase” in terms of acoustic impact for local residents.
The green alternative
At the other extreme are platforms such as Zeroport, which opposes the reform of the infrastructure. José García, vice-president of Depana – the environmentalist league that forms part of this organisation – is sceptical that the extension will be able to attract the tourists lost to the pandemic. “Instead of having a demand, you create the supply and see if the demand arises”, a model that he believes has been repeated too many times in the construction of provincial airports in Spain and which he considers to have failed. On the other hand, he intuits that in order to carry out the works, financing will be sought from the Next Generation European funds, which is why he predicts that the ecologists “will put all possible obstacles in the way” so that these subsidies do not arrive.
María García, representative of the Plataforma para la Calidad del Aire (Platform for Air Quality), described the proposed extension as “a pharaonic, speculative and unjustified project in the midst of the aviation crisis”, as she recalled that estimates suggest that “traffic will not recover until 2027“. He also accuses tourism companies of generating “precarious employment” and “a great impact on the population”, and calls for “diversification of the economy”, bearing in mind that “there are many sectors to generate employment, such as public transport”. This “does not mean that there is no tourism, but it must be changed”, he concludes.
“Long radius means attracting companies”.
Precisely, the economy and employment are two of the pillars on which supporters sustain their arguments. The business community, along with 200 other organisations, presented a manifesto this week at the Esade business school to defend the investment. The employers’ associations pointed out that the works would raise the weight of El Prat airport by 2% to 9% of the Catalan GDP. It would also generate some 83,000 additional jobs, according to a study by the University of Barcelona (UB) also published recently.
Xavier Fageda, professor of economics at the UB, reminds us that “international connections attract global companies and knowledge-intensive institutions, which in turn generate highly qualified jobs and high salaries“. This is discouraged by an airport sustained by low-cost airlines. “Air transport is fundamental for a city to be attractive for knowledge,” adds the same source, who sees the investment as “positive on a social level, if it is done with environmental compensation, and good after weighing up the pros and cons”. This is also the argument of the airline employers’ association ALA, which anticipates more attraction of global companies and talent if the work is carried out.
And the relationship with Barajas?
However, does Spain need another hub and does it need it to be in Catalonia? Federico Soto, professor of Economics and Business and director of the Master’s Degree in Air Transport Company Management at the European University questions this. “Madrid is already a hub and the countries around us usually have a large airport where their flag carrier operates, in this case a role that Iberia would play,” he recalls. El Prat, therefore, could be more and better linked to Barajas, acting as a hub for short and medium-haul flights connected to the capital. “It should not be forgotten that Barcelona airport is the hub of Vueling, which specialises in this market,” Soto points out.
The professor wonders whether “Barcelona would be more competitive than Madrid when it comes, for example, to connecting with Latin America”, when a passenger taking off from Barcelona “has an airport an hour away that specialises in these transatlantic corridors”. The relationship between Barcelona and Madrid airports is, therefore, a debate that underlies the exchange of ideas on the expansion of El Prat.
Tourism, and what kind
Also on the table is the tourism debate, which Catalonia has yet to reach a broad consensus on. Professor Fageda, who is in favour of the extension, reminds us that an alternative to extending the third runway, raising the satellite terminal, and building the people mover – the transport system between terminals – has an alternative in greater use of the airports of Girona and Reus. “It is a more environmentally sustainable investment, it would reduce public spending and it would serve to bring more tourists to this provincial capital, which is not overcrowded. But do we want more tourists or more companies, international organisations, and even global university headquarters? Barcelona is already very congested with tourism. Not with knowledge,” he says.
Francesc Robusté, Professor of Transport at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC), is against the investment package as a whole, as he believes that the airport can still increase capacity “by managing things well and optimising its operations“. The academic recalls that the current infrastructure “is already sufficient for flights lasting one, two or three hours, which are the vast majority of those operating at El Prat“. He asks “how many intercontinental flights” take off daily from the two runways and recalls that “supply, without managing demand, is short-sighted”. The employers’ association ALA responds, which says that, precisely, the expansion of El Prat would help to “attract flights” to America – tourists who use the cruise sector – and Asia, the one that leaves more money at the destination. “If you want to have more long flights, you have to make room for their planes. Aena has already taken steps in this direction, such as the extension of the south dock, but the satellite terminal would cover this need”, the controllers’ union Usca reminds us.
To manage more or to manage better
Whether or not to include the increase in capacity at Barcelona airport in Aena’s DORA II plan is in fact linked to the question of operations and management. And not only at El Prat. Professor Francesc Robusté, who is opposed to large-scale investment – he does defend specific works, such as the satellite terminal – reminds us that “engineers always want more. We want bigger things, with more capacity. This is a mistake. We need to know how to manage better. And ask yourself if you can squeeze the operational capacity of El Prat, and the answer is yes: you can increase the capacity of the terminals by 27% if you undertake the most important work, the satellite, and by 41% the capacity on the runway if you manage it better, without the need to lengthen the third and pay the environmental price,” he says.
And it is not only Aena‘s task. “We talk about better connecting Girona and Reus with Barcelona to divert flights. And I agree with that. But the administrations must know that they have to improve public transport. Will the connecting passenger and his suitcase reach the other airport in an hour, are we capable of doing so? Are we talking about Lleida-Alguaire airport?”, says the researcher. Professor Federico Soto also invites us to reflect on the costs. “The expansion of El Prat does not make sense from an operational or economic point of view. The numbers do not support it, despite the fact that the business community defends it, which to a certain extent is natural. Barajas is already bigger than it should have been,” he says.