Landing a little ahead of its scheduled 10.40am arrival time, a Ryanair plane from London became the first regular passenger flight to touch down at Castellón’s long-empty airport on Tuesday morning.
Inaugurated unfinished in March 2011, the installation had remained plane-less for the first four-and-a-half years of its existence, lacking the necessary operating permits and becoming a prime example of the wasteful public spending undertaken during Spain’s construction boom, which came to an abrupt end with the start of the economic crisis in 2008.
When it finally received the licenses it needed to begin operations in December 2014, two retirees became the first people to use the runway when they landed their helicopter there. Charter flights for the likes of Villarreal soccer club and pop group Blur, who landed there en route to play the Benicàssim music festival, soon followed.
Now the start of the first scheduled route puts an end to years of moaning from the local tourist sector and businesses, who claimed that the construction of a provincial airport was essential for local growth. But it remains to be seen whether it really will be decisive. Ryanair will fly there three times a week from London and twice a week from Bristol, though the latter route is only available until October.
Most of the 189 passengers traveling on the packed flight were either British married couples with vacation homes in Castellón or young Spaniards from the area who work or study in London.
“It is what we call a white elephant,” said David Prior, one of the Britons who, along with his wife, was making the most of the new route to visit his vacation home in nearby Alcossebre. “We have been hearing them talk about this for 10 years.”
“Until I saw the name of Castellón on the airport screen in London, I didn’t believe it,” said Adrián Segarra, a young local from Les Coves.
There to greet the plane were representatives from Ryanair, Canadian airport manager SNC-Lavalin and local politicians, including Francesc Colomer, head of the Valencian Tourism Agency and from Tuesday also the head of Aerocas, the public company set up in 2003 to promote the airport. Colomer expressed concern that the site might end up labeled as “Valencia North airport.” “In no way will it become consolidated as a cheap airport for other destinations,” he said.
SNC-Lavalin has said it will carry out surveys over the next few days to find out the final destinations of passengers, the length of their stays, and how much they spend.
The arrival of the first scheduled Ryanair plane at the airport, which is situated in the town of Vilanova d’Alcolea, 36 kilometers from the provincial capital of Castellón, comes in the middle of a fresh controversy as the European Commission investigates whether a multi-million-euro sum that the Valencian government agreed to pay SNC-Lavalin to manage the airport may have been an illegal public subsidy.
Built by former Castellón provincial chief Carlos Fabra, who is now in jail for tax fraud, the project was due to be funded by the private sector, but the Valencia government ultimately had to pay out €120 million for construction work, plus an additional €50 million in compensation, cost overruns and external work.
When Spain became mired in a deep economic crisis, the plane-less airport was featured in numerous international news reports about reckless public spending during the boom years.
English version by Nick Funnell.