Global Politics

Spain's phantom airports

by Gerry Hadden

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In Spain, a new international airport has just been inaugurated. A bit early, perhaps. A month has passed but there are still no planes landing or taking off there. There's no staff, not even a coffee shop open inside.

The Castellon airport cost millions of tax payer dollars to build but sits idle. It's one of four so-called "ghost" airports built in Spain in recent years.

After overseeing six years of construction, the president of Castellon, Carlos Fabra, stood inside the Castellon International Airport in March, and declared his pet project a reality.

"Today, Castellon stops being the only Mediterranean province in Spain without an airport," he said.

And some airport it is. The 225 million dollar project is designed to receive millions of passengers a year. It has the longest runway in Europe, at two and a half miles. But what it lacks is even more attention grabbing. Planes, for starters. Or even permission to operate. Carlos Fabra, it would seem, cut the ribbon too soon.

The Castellon International Airport sits atop on an arid ridge about 10 miles inland from the beach. Nearby are two sleepy little farming villages. Villagers were told the airport would make them rich. Now most are furious. In the village of Vilanova D'Alcolea, Cinta Gimera says she used to own 5 acres of almond trees where the runway now stands. She says her land was expropriated unfairly.

"They paid me about 10 cents a square foot for my land," Gimera said. "Because it was only zoned for agriculture but then they build the airport. And what will we get for it? Noise, chaos. And yet no jobs."

That's true so far, as the airport remains closed. It did open, though, for a day.
When President Fabra inaugurated the place he told his audience that even though there were no planes, that wasn't the point. Airports, he said, are for the people.

"Beginning Monday," Fabra said, "any citizen who so wishes can visit the terminal or go for a walk on the runway."

That set off such a firestorm that he quickly canceled the visits. A reporter who tried to visit the airport recently was stopped by security at the entrance. A construction manager, who wouldn't speak on tape, said that no one gets in until after local elections next month. It's a political embarrassment, he said.

And an expensive one. There was the cost of building it. And on top of that, the regional government will have to pay penalties to the airport's private operator if the tourists don't show up. Based on recent precedent, that seems a likely scenario.
More 'ghost' airports

Spain has three other airports the Spanish press have dubbed 'ghost airports.' In Ciudad Real, south of Madrid, an airport finished in 2009 was supposed to receive two million passengers a year. In 2010, only 31,000 came through.

The story is similar in the northeast city of Lleida. Traffic is so slow there's only a skeleton staff there. A RyanAir flight recently had to circle the airport for 35 minutes because the lone air traffic controller hadn't yet arrived to work.

All of these airports share some things in common. They're located off the beaten path. There are already other established airports nearby. And, says Spanish economist Lluis Renart, local politicians have fallen victim to hubris.

"I think that unfortunately, in the last few years, some politicians seem to think that a political decision was something they could decide via pure power exertion without taking into account any sort of economic rationality."

In other words, local political bosses have pushed through these mega projects with little oversight. And little study. The benefit to them? In the short run, the promise of jobs gets them votes. And they levy taxes on the construction costs.

But in the long run, if the airports stay idle, they might just end up on the growing scrap-heap of Spanish construction projects, from houses to golf courses to theme parks, all derailed when the country's building boom ended four years ago

Back at the airport entrance in Castellon, a lone security guard who wouldn't give his name shrugs when asked if he thinks he'll ever see planes landing here.

"I have no idea," the man says. "It was inaugurated in March, but as you can see the final details are still being worked out."

It's gotta open, though, he insisted optimistically. It has a runway.