Business sector and environmentalists at odds over expansion of Barcelona airport

Employers' associations believe facility should be an international hub, but works could damage precious wetlands

A flight landing in Barcelona's El Prat airport on March 24, 2021 (by Lluís Sibils)
A flight landing in Barcelona's El Prat airport on March 24, 2021 (by Lluís Sibils) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

June 3, 2021 01:24 PM

Business leaders in Catalonia have joined together to call for the urgent expansion of Barcelona-El Prat Airport, but face opposition from locals and environmental groups who say the move is unnecessary and would damage precious wetlands.

Catalonia's two main employers' associations (Foment and Pimec), Barcelona Chamber of Commerce and a host of other groups gathered at the Esade Business School in Barcelona in a very rare joint event on Wednesday to lay out the case for a new terminal and runway extension at Catalonia's main airport.

The works would raise the annual capacity of the facility from 55 to 70 million passengers. In 2019, 52.6 million people departed from or landed in Barcelona, an all-time high before the pandemic led to the figures plummeting

The business community argued that expansion is essential if Barcelona Airport is to grow its status as an international hub, which in turn will bring economic benefits to the city and to Catalonia as a whole through tourism, investment and by attracting businesses.

Foment president Josep Sánchez Llibre stressed the urgency of the matter. "We don't have much time," he warned. "We have already lost enough opportunities and we cannot let this flight towards prosperity escape us."

Expanding the airport would lead to 350,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, Sánchez Llibre said.

Barcelona Chamber of Commerce president Mònica Roca argued that the airport's current condition put a limit on destinations and said it would be "absurd to waste this investment opportunity" involving €1.7 billion.

Javier Faus, from the Cercle d'Economia lobby, argued that "our country cannot afford not to grow," but also claimed it would be the last time the airport would be expanded, asking, "Will we be able to deny future generations what previous generations have done for us?"

Environmental concerns

Outside the meeting, however, environmental groups argued that future generations would not be thanking today's business leaders.

Those protesting at the gates of the Esade Business School instead called for the "immediate and unconditional" suspension of the plans to expand the airport.

Zeroport, which brings together more than 50 community and environmental groups warned that politicians must not greenwash the issue, but urged them to "fulfill their responsibilities" and "look after the public interest, not private."

Spokesperson Alejandro González argued that the expansion "is not consistent" with climate agreements and called for a "resizing of infrastructure" in order to "generate a transformative economy consistent with social reality."

Environmentalists are concerned that expanding Barcelona-El Prat's third runway will wipe out a significant section of wetlands in the Llobregat delta, rich in biodiversity.

They also criticized the mass tourism that an enlarged airport would encourage, saying that it has already led to significant social inequality in Barcelona. The group Prou Soroll (Enough Noise) claimed that Catalonia "does not need nor has it asked for a larger airport," and warned of the damaging effects a bigger airport would have on those living nearby or close to flight paths.

Local councils in the area have also recently voted against the plans in their plenary sessions, including that of Barcelona and El Prat de Llobregat – where the facility is located.


The Catalan government has said it will convene an institutional round table on the matter of airport expansion and in parliament on Wednesday president Pere Aragonès reaffirmed his commitment to a "consensus" solution, one that combines economic development with environmental concerns and the protection of biodiversity. "The decision will not be taken by the government alone, it will be the result of consensus," he said. The newly elected executive has not clearly sided yet.

Vice president Jordi Puigneró of Junts per Catalunya said that Catalonia "cannot afford" not to have an airport fit for the 21st century and said that the government has agreed to have discussions with various sectors on "the airport that Barcelona and Catalonia needs."

Socialists leader Salvador Illa called on Aragonès to say he was "clearly in favor" of enlargement, while on the other hand far-left CUP asked the Government to do everything in its power to protect the areas surrounding the airport and prevent the expansion of infrastructure.