On the first Sunday in April, the personnel at the Huesca airport watched the last commercial plane of the year take off. Destination, London. There were no displays of emotion among those present. The airport's more than 30 employees and the squad of six firefighters who work in an adjacent building have no reason to despair: their jobs are guaranteed, even if there are no flights for the rest of the year. Spain has way too many airports where there's no work to be done. One of them is Castellón, which was recently inaugurated with no airplanes - a circumstance that is due to be repeated in Murcia a few months from now. Another is in Ciudad Real, where half of the airport staff is sitting idle at home, affected by an officially approved redundancy plan (ERE). Meanwhile, the airport in Teruel is looking for an owner.
But Castellón may not be any luckier than Huesca. There they don't expect to have a single commercial flight in the next eight months. Ever since that Sunday in April, Huesca airport has been an oasis of calm. At mid-morning, nine cars sit in the airport parking lot while three janitors smoke cigarettes and chat outside the building. They're not in any hurry: the airport is gleaming and it's not hard to keep it clean. The café is open and by the looks of the pastries sitting on the bar, it seems to get plenty of customers. Drawn by its low prices, people take a trip to the airport to eat, especially on the weekend when families and groups come in. "We haven't got any flights, but people always come here to eat," says the woman who works there.
In the offices, people seem absorbed in some kind of work. The security guard is sitting in front of a panel of screens that shows every angle of the airport, despite the fact that no activity is expected, save for the occasional light aircraft. The director doesn't like to give explanations - she just manages the place, it's not her fault it's dead. Naturally, all the shops are closed. It's not quite a ghost building, because there are people in it and it hasn't lost its look of a brand-new building. It's just an airport waiting for the next flight, eight months from now.
Huesca is the result of an absurd airport policy. Four years after its inauguration, no one seems willing to acknowledge paternity. The project started out as a personal initiative of Popular Party Senator Rodolfo Ainsa, locally regarded as a politician so well connected in Madrid that he used to boast about dining at the home of José María and Ana, as he referred to ex-Prime Minister Aznar and his wife in private circles. He also called himself a friend of Francisco Álvarez Cascos, the public works minister at the time and another of the promoters of the project, which was inherited by the Socialist government. Not a single politician in Huesca or Aragon - from either of the main parties - spoke out against the project. Instead, they called it an excellent investment for the future. The inauguration was an act of local exaltation on May 10, 2007.
The news that Huesca was the Spanish airport with the lowest number of passengers in 2009 (6,228) did not daunt the staunchest champions of the project, who pointed out that, in spite of it all, it had increased its activity 56.4 percent with respect to the previous year. Determined to defend the indefensible, the promoters stressed another piece of data: Huesca was number 21 out of 48 airports in the AENA (Spanish Aviation Agency) network in number of operations. In other words, there were more operations (21,441) than passengers. Did the planes fly empty? No, here's the trick: it was 140 trainee Chinese pilots who did the flying, in adjacent facilities rented out by the company Top Fly, which was in charge of training them. For one year, the Chinese pilots took off and landed every day, giving the airport some activity... not to mention a few scares, because they often got lost in the airspace. Some of them even ended up landing in Zaragoza, much to the panic of air-traffic controllers.
But now the Chinese are gone, and the only private company that flies out of Huesca - Pyrenair, a company founded with Aragonese capital, that tried to get a foothold in the aviation market by offering flights for skiers - has ceased operating, even though the Aragon regional government was subsidizing it. Each person that landed or took off in Huesca cost the public coffers 700 euros. This explains why the airport's losses last year amounted to 6 million euros and accounts for its grim future. The Huesca airport has been blacklisted as unsustainable. And it's not the only one.
Between the opening of the Huesca airport and its last flight, seven more airports have been inaugurated or remodeled in Burgos, León, Salamanca, Lleida, Ciudad Real and Castellón, the future of which doesn't look much brighter. The phenomenon hasn't run out of steam yet, and there are also other airports ready for takeoff, such as those in Murcia and Teruel. And judging from the campaign promises of politicians around Spain, that list may soon include airports in places such as Huelva, La Roda (Albacete), Antequera, Cáceres (where the regional authorities talk of the "need" for an international airport for Extremadura) and Lugo. In every case, the promoters cite optimistic business plans that promise a fresh stream of hundreds of new jobs, plus a multitude of tourists descending on the region.
The number of airports in northern Spain is truly remarkable. In a 125-kilometer radius around the Burgos airport, there are five more airports in cities connected by freeways and highways: Logroño (107 kilometers away), Vitoria (93), Bilbao (119), Santander (120) and Valladolid (125). The only new thing in this airport-building frenzy is the appearance of private airports (Ciudad Real, Castellón and the upcoming Murcia airport) and projects managed by regional entities (Lleida). And let's not forget that construction companies have an interest in these private projects, with the goal of profiting from building the actual airports and speculating on adjacent plots of land, where they hope to obtain considerable sums through industrial parks and housing developments.
The most ambitious case was the Ciudad Real airport, which wanted to become a cargo and passenger terminal in the shadow of Barajas. They even tried to call it Madrid South. Inaugurated in December 2008, it was a flop from day one. Far from meeting its forecast of 2.5 million passengers in five years (it barely got 100,000 a year), the plots where industrial parks were supposed to be built remain empty and the investments made by Caja Castilla La Mancha (CCM) have led the Bank of Spain to take control of this savings bank. What's more, an employment regulation has all airport personnel - even its executives - working for three months and then on the dole for another three months. Nearly 1 billion euros in investment is up in the air. The first private experiment has been a failure.
Failure also seems to be the fate of the new airport in Castellón (recently inaugurated by provincial leader Carlos Fabra, despite the fact that no airplanes are allowed to land there), and the one yet to be opened in Murcia. The case of Murcia is equally paradigmatic. The region already has a military/civilian airport: San Javier. A second runway was opened. Under AENA's management, it was almost profitable. But this did not make the regional government reconsider its plan to build a new one in La Corvera, just 30 kilometers away. Nor have they taken into consideration the expansion of the Alicante airport, the sixth largest in Spain in terms of passenger volume, just 130 kilometers away.
The prospects of these three private airports are so bleak that all three have been visited by Chinese businessmen who are interested in running them.
With the excuse of taking advantage of the low-cost boom, authorities have been in a rush to plan new airports. The argument was that companies such as easyJet and Ryanair were looking for alternative sites where they could benefit from lower fees and even subsidies.
"They saw some secondary airports grow and thought that it would happen to them too," says Roberto Rendeiro, a professor from Las Palmas University. "But they didn't take profitability criteria into account. Thus, of all the 48 airports in Spain, only 11 are profitable. They've really been built for political reasons. Some of them make no sense at all from a spatial point of view. This is the case of the airports in the north, which will never get enough traffic to break even."
Experts put that break-even point at between three and five million passengers. Only 15 Spanish airports had over three million in 2009, and only 25 had more than a million passengers. Of the eight recently opened or remodeled facilities, only the Santander airport comes close to a million, with 958,157.
AENA has spent 16 billion euros on its airports in recent years, with the expectation that passenger numbers would go from 165 million to 311 million by 2020. In 2009, they lost a total of 468 million euros. Juan Ignacio Lema, the president of AENA, argues that "we don't have too many airports; what we have is too many airports trying to be Barajas. There isn't room for 47 Barajas Airports in Spain. Each airport is going to have to downsize, reducing investment to the minimum and branching out into other areas, such as recreational aviation or charter flights."
Ever since the crisis hit, the magic word has been privatization. Germà Bel i Queralt is an expert in infrastructure and a controversial columnist - partly because he used to be a Socialist deputy. Bel doesn't hold back when it comes to this subject. He says the problem isn't just the secondary airports, but also the overambitious expansion and renovation projects carried out at airports such as Barajas and El Prat, in Barcelona.
"It's not the little airports that have the huge deficits, but the big airports, which have received the most investment and lost the most money. It's a question of overall policy. We've wasted money on airports, just like we have on the [high-speed train network] AVE: we've got more kilometers of high-speed rail in the world with the lowest number of passengers. Spain doesn't have a transportation policy, but a brand policy: we dazzle the world with the best terminals. We wanted to teach the world a lesson, and here we are with the highest unemployment rate and AENA, the aviation agency that loses the most money in the world."
Bel analyzes Spanish infrastructure policy in his book España, capital París. "After not making business plans, justifications have ensued: that bit about putting Spain on the map is an excuse. We've acted like nouveau riche, as in the case of the five radial toll highways in Madrid: we wanted to have just as many quality access roads as Paris. And the bills are going to pile up because both AENA and ADIF (Administrator of Railway Infrastructure) use long-term, progressive depreciation criteria, so that the investment is barely recovered at the beginning. In a few years, the bills will be horrifying and that will have its consequences." The president of AENA begs to differ: "We hope to be in the black by 2013. We've got an accredited, efficient network that doesn't cost taxpayers a cent, and that's important." He adds: "The trend is to move toward global management of airports. We manage airports in Mexico and Colombia. The Spanish model follows that trend."
Professor Rendeiro isn't all that convinced that privatization is going to be a success, either. "It needs to be studied, because the ones that made money did it for the rest. The network system could be broken. And then the low-cost companies aren't going to be the answer, because the cost of flights will go up as a consequence of environmental legislation and the fact that European entities are getting tougher and tougher on covert subsidies."
As it awaits its next flight, the Huesca airport is absolutely dead, apart from its café. For years, there was an aerodrome for gliders on the same spot. The Nimbus academy, where Spanish pilots were trained for several decades, was also founded here. It was considered the best school in Spain. In fact, the airstrip for gliders runs parallel to the one built for the airport. According to the original project, the new airport was supposed to accommodate both types of flights. But there were changes to the project, bringing up the cost, and now, as a report from the Public Works Ministry admits, the two runways are incompatible. The final outcome is ironic, and also tragic: commercial planes don't fly to Huesca because there are no passengers, and those who want to fly gliders can't use the runway because it violates regulations. Thus, the airport has become a themed café.