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WHITE ELEPHANT INFRASTRUCTURE

Who gets the keys to Murcia’s airport?

The PP regional government is locked in a legal battle over who should control project

Ramón Muñoz
A test plane at Corvera airport in the Murcia region.
A test plane at Corvera airport in the Murcia region.ISRAEL SÁNCHEZ (EFE)

The Corvera airport, located in the southeastern region of Murcia, would be just another symbol of Spain's wasteful spending during the boom years, were it not for a legal battle — which even the Civil Guard has become embroiled in — between the regional government and the company supposedly in charge of managing the facility, Aeromur.

A number of high-profile failed airport projects have hit the Spanish headlines in recent years, such as Castellón and Ciudad Real, which have barely seen any planes take off or land — despite millions of euros of public money being poured into their construction. In the case of Corvera, however, no one even knows who should take possession of the keys to the airport, who should be in charge of its management should it ever be inaugurated, or who will assume debts of more than 200 million euros that have been spent on the infrastructure.

The latest chapter in this battle came last week, when the regional government called in the assistance of the Civil Guard to "take possession" of the airport. The staff from the Aeromur management company, meanwhile, had locked themselves in the building. In the end, an emergency court order foiled that attempt to take possession of Corvera, and merely permitted the regional authorities to take an inventory of the equipment on site. In response, the management company has filed a complaint with the courts for the crime of "coercion."

"The airport has always belonged to the region of Murcia, and will continue to do so," the regional public works department announced.

But aside from the row over who actually owns the airport, the very future of the project is already immersed in a court battle. On September 13, the regional government rescinded the contract it had in place with the management company, which is made up of construction firm Sacyr, banks BMN and Sabadell-CAM, cement company Cementos Lacruz and real estate firm Montoro e Hijos. It did so on the basis of allegations that Aeromur had abandoned the project and had failed to meet the deadline to open the airport on July 28, 2012, as they had committed to do when they signed the financing deal with the creditor banks. If the government does not manage to negotiate a solution, Aeromur will appeal the rescission of the contract in the courts, and will request compensation for damages, according to sources close to Sacyr. For its part, the regional authorities also plan to take Aeromur to court in an attempt to secure fiscal redress.

In the background lies a battle between factions of Murcia's PP

The Murcia regional government is planning on holding a new tender "as soon as possible" with the aim of opening the airport in 2014, according to sources there. But the process to award the tender will take between six and nine months. This time period, combined with the administrative steps required, would not allow for the airport to be opened until at least the end of 2014, according to sources from the companies involved.

The same sources believe that there will be few candidates willing to bid for the tender — at least not while the legal battle for the airport continues. The same sources believe that the real intention of the Popular Party regional government is to reach an agreement with the Public Works Ministry for state air authority AENA to take charge of the airport.

Management company Aeromur rejects the regional government's arguments, arguing that it was always planning to open the airport but that the economic viability of the project was complicated by a fall in demand and a rise in costs. Sources from the company insist that they always sought a negotiated solution, such as an offer they made to the regional public works department on September 11 to "provide the resources and do whatever was necessary" so that the airport could be inaugurated in April 2014.

Meanwhile, in the background to this legal conflict are political disagreements and a battle between different factions of the Popular Party. Murcia's regional premier, Ramón Luis Valcárcel, wants to contest the 2015 regional elections with the airport open, but is not willing, under any circumstance, to be photographed in front of an empty runway. That was what happened to the former premier of the Valencia region, Francisco Camps, who infamously cut the ribbon of Castellón airport in 2011. As yet, not a single plane has broken the horizon.

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