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Is Barcelona airport prepared to become an international hub?

Barcelona’s El Prat Airport registered 32.2 million international passengers last year, more than huge airports like JFK in New York or Narita in Tokyo. Barcelona has the 17th most transited airport in the world, according to the Airports Council International (ACI). There was an 11% growth in passengers traveling outside Spain from Barcelona over last year. Madrid-Barajas is still the main Spanish airport, with 36.1 million passengers, but El Prat is growing much faster. Those good results last year are not enough. Barcelona is looking to take a huge intercontinental leap forward in 2017. After hitting a record in 2016, the facility is now ranked seventh among European airports. The launch of the new long-haul operating hubs of Norwegian and Level are bringing it closer to becoming an international hub for a combination of European low-cost airlines and foreign companies.

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26 May 2017 12:44 PM

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Blanca Ojeda / CNA

Barcelona (ACN).- Barcelona’s El Prat Airport registered 32.2 million international passengers last year, more than huge airports like JFK in New York or Narita in Tokyo. Barcelona has the 17th most transited airport in the world, according to the Airports Council International (ACI). There was an 11% growth in passengers traveling outside Spain from Barcelona over last year. Madrid-Barajas is still the main Spanish airport, with 36.1 million passengers, but El Prat is growing much faster. 


Those good results last year are not enough. Barcelona is looking to take a huge intercontinental leap forward in 2017. After hitting a record in 2016, the facility is now ranked seventh among European airports. The launch of the new long-haul operating hubs of Norwegian and Level are bringing it closer to becoming an international hub for a combination of European low-cost airlines and foreign companies.

The new routes that are being launched in the next few weeks include Norwegian’s new flights to Buenos Aires; Cathay Pacific’s route to Hong Kong; Level’s (a new airline from IAG group) flights to Los Angeles, Oakland and Buenos Aires; Korean Airlines’ to Seoul; Mahan Air’s to Teheran; Azores Airlines’ to Boston; American Airlines’ to Chicago; and Latham Airlines’ to Lima. Also, Air China will expands its connections between Barcelona and Shanghai to all year round.

According to the Air Traffic Observatory, 1.3 million more seats will be offered this summer compared to last year. Vueling is still the main airline, but its growth is slower than other companies.

Airport management is especially interested in increasing connections to Asia, a huge market with a bright future. Asian companies such as Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Cathay Pacific are the ones with the biggest planes. Currently, Emirates is flying twice a day from Barcelona with the biggest commercial plane, the Airbus 380, which accommodates 1,034 passengers.

The new connections are another step towards making this facility a true intercontinental hub and promoting Barcelona and Catalonia worldwide as a magnet for investment and economic growth opportunities.

Is El Prat-Barcelona Airport prepared to grow this fast?

Aena, the Spanish airport manager, claims that the facility is prepared to increase traffic even more during the next years. According to their statistics, the airport can withstand 90 operations per hour, while the current average is around 70 per hour, sometimes reaching more than 80 during peak hours.

But air traffic controllers warn about reaching a saturation point. “Even though Aena tries to make it seem like everything is under control, there are not enough resources to cope with this sudden huge growth,” says Marc García, the spokesman for the air traffic controllers trade union (USCA). Some of the runways are limited in use, reducing airport capacity, because they are too close to residential areas and neighbors have complained about the noise. Air controllers also think there is not enough staff to cover all the new routes.

Barcelona’s airport is a special case because it has two terminals which operate independently. Before the opening of Terminal 1 in 2009, almost 35 million passengers used Terminal 2. Currently, the old terminal is used mainly by Ryanair and other low cost airlines and the number of passengers has decreased to 15 million. That means 20 million passengers more could use Terminal 2 in the event that the newer one reaches its saturation point. But, according to García, “the problem is not inside the terminal, it is outside, on the runways. Aena has to find a way to make the companies take advantage of off-peak hours, which are between 11am and 1pm, between 4pm and 6pm, and at night”. But the problem is that airlines don’t want to change their schedules to fit those hours.

Tension between the Catalan Government and Aena

Josep Rull, the Minister of Territory and Sustainability of the Catalan Government, thinks Aena is restricting Barcelona Airport’s potential. According to Rull, Aena makes 15 times more money exploiting Madrid-Barajas airport while the taxes in Barcelona are higher. That is why he tweeted “We need an individualized management system separate from Aena in order to broaden the airport’s potential without limits.”

Some destinations in Barcelona are limited because of the Spanish Government’s agreements with other countries. For example, Norwegian showed interest in connecting Barcelona to Tokyo, but Russia only allows planes departing from Madrid to fly over its territory. That made the airline lose interest, because an alternative route would be longer and more expensive. Rull said that the Catalan Government would make “bold policies to attract international flights, big companies, and the best destinations in the best time slots”.

Renovation construction will help with all the new traffic

Aena has recently announced an enlargement of the runway area that is now used by Air Nostrum to operate domestic flights to Valencia, Badajoz, and León. There are only 14 weekly frequencies, so the area is untapped. The planes used for those flights are very small—Bombardier CRJ900—and the runway is adapted for them, so no other company can use that space until the construction work has been completed.

Construction work is expected to start next fall, after the summer bustle, and will be finished before the winter holidays. The remodeling will go out for tender in a few weeks and the chosen company will turn the regional flight area into an international one, with capacity for the biggest commercial plane in the world, the Airbus 380. The workers will have to adapt the signage for large planes and also install new passenger boarding bridges, or jetways. With this change, Aena is trying to “make an optimal use of the airport according to the changes in tendencies in airport transit,” its spokesman said.

Aena is also thinking about creating a satellite terminal, like the one at Madrid-Barajas. This satellite terminal was announced before the opening of the new terminal and the project has already been designed by Ricardo Bofill, a renowned local architect. Budget limitations kept the idea from being implemented. Now, this satellite terminal would be very useful for rearranging all the companies in a better way and would allow for the introduction of additional new routes and airlines. According to some airport workers, Aena is currently working on the initial phase of the project with different companies and government entities, so the completion date is still unknown.

In addition to the opening of the new terminal in 2009, there have been other expansions at the airport. A couple of years ago, 20 more check-in counters had to be added because there was not enough space during the summer season. The space for them was available because when the new terminal was opened, the old one was still absorbing a large part of the traffic and those counters were not needed.

The security control area was also recently refurbished. They needed to build additional electronic barriers because there were only two entrance points to security and the lines were so long.

There have recently been problems in the passport control area too. Controls are run by Spanish police, that has immigration powers. But there are not enough Spanish policemen working in Catalonia's main airport, so only a few cabins were open to check passengers’ documents. The Spanish government announced that between 40 and 50 more police agents will work in the airport to solve this situation. Also, the government and Aena have already bought 40 automatic border control machines for Barcelona airport, which will be installed before summer.

What about the other Catalan airports?

Barcelona Airport growth seems like great news for tourism in Catalonia, but the truth is that the Girona and Reus airports are not pleased at the good results in the Catalan capital.

Girona airport, located in Vilobí d’Onyar, has seen decreasing activity for seven years. 2016 was a bad year, with a decrease of 1.65 million passengers, and is operating at a loss. When Girona airport reached 5.5 million passengers in 2008, the Government invested 90 million euros to expand the parking lot, create a bus station, and refurbish the old terminal. These renovations were expected to attract 9 million passengers between 2015 and 2020, but not even a quarter of that number has been reached yet.

Despite that, Eudald Casadesús, the Catalan Goverment delegate in Girona and president of the Association for Girona Airport Promotion (AGI), is optimistic about the this year's results. “2017 will be a turning point, we will reach two million passengers again,” he said. Ryanair is the main cause for the expectation in growth. The Irish low-cost airline has announced eight new routes to the UK and one to Romania.

Only 800,000 users travelled from Reus in 2016, 16% more than the year before. But that little growth is not positive at all, as the airport had twice the current number of passengers ten years ago. According to Carlos Medrano, ex-president of Aena, the airport posted losses of 4 million euros in 2016.

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  • Airbus A380 about to take off at Barcelona's El Prat airport (by ACN)

  • Airbus A380 about to take off at Barcelona's El Prat airport (by ACN)