The complex debate over expanding Barcelona airport

Business interests and environmentalists at odds over proposal that would see runway extended into specially protected wetlands

Passengers at Barcelona airport, August 2020 (by Miquel Codolar)
Passengers at Barcelona airport, August 2020 (by Miquel Codolar) / Cillian Shields & Lorcan Doherty

Cillian Shields & Lorcan Doherty | Barcelona

July 10, 2021 11:41 AM

Barcelona airport has seen huge growth in the past couple of decades, with passenger numbers increasing from around 17.5 million in 1999 to almost 53 million in 2019, making it the 6th busiest airport in Europe.

The company that manages the airport, Aena, has published a draft plan to expand it, by building a new satellite terminal and extending one of the existing runways, measures it says are needed if Barcelona’s El Prat airport is to become an international hub.

Overall, the plan would be worth an investment of around €1.7 billion into the Catalan airport, should it go ahead.

Opinion is divided on the wisdom of the proposals; Catalonia’s business community is very much in favour of expansion, but there is fervent opposition to the plan from environmentalists and local residents alike.

The proposals

“There are two reasons to improve the infrastructure of the airport,” Òscar Oliver explains to Catalan News: “Improve the capacity of the runway first, and second and especially to improve the capacity of the terminals.”

Oliver is a professor of infrastructure management at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and has worked for over a decade in the airline industry. 

A new satellite terminal would increase the overall number of passengers that the airport can accommodate each year from 55 million to 70 million

At Barcelona airport there are two main runways, one to the north, nearer to the mountains, and one to the south, closer to the sea. The proposed plans would see the shorter runway, nearer the sea, be extended by 500 metres

Extending the runway to a total length of 3km would mean clearing the La Ricarda lagoon and wetlands beside the airport. This natural space has special EU protection as an important habitat for biodiversity, and any plans would need to be approved at the European level. 

To compensate for this, Aena, Spain’s airport authority, proposes rewilding some 280 hectares of land to the opposite side of the airport than that where the Ricarda lagoon is located. 

Arguments in favour

Aena’s vision behind the plan is to create an international hub in the Catalan capital. 

One of the main strategies is to “build a bridge between Asia and America via Barcelona, using Barcelona as the connection point,” Òscar Oliver says. 

The new facilities could provide space for transatlantic airlines to set up new bases, and for many carriers that travel between Asia and America to use Barcelona as the go-to stop-off point in between journeys. 

Spain’s airport authority claims that around 20,000 jobs could be created, between the construction phase as well as when the proposals are functional. 

Additionally, they estimate that the airport would grow the Catalan economy by 2-3%, with the facility itself increasing how much it represents from roughly 7% of the GDP to 9%.

Growing the maximum number of visitors that can come through the doors of the airport each year could also increase tourism numbers, with more people arriving into Barcelona and spending their money in Catalonia. 

Òscar Oliver also points out that the location of the Catalan capital gives it an important strategic advantage that increasing the capacity of the airport could help exploit further.

He says that within a range of 14km, “there is the city of Barcelona, the port of Barcelona, and also the Zona Franca, one of the most important logistics areas in southern Europe.”

“If we consider the number of people who take a cruise from Barcelona port, 80% of these people arrive into Barcelona by plane. So you can imagine the importance for the cruise industry,” he says. 

Proponents of the expansion met in June and published their manifesto promoting the moves. The group of more than 200 bodies and entities include employers organizations and business groups, and they argue that the plans will lead to more investment, more jobs, higher wages, and greater international connectivity, and say it is “in the general public interest, of a social and economic nature.”

Oliver also highlights the effect that the airport expansion would have on the various exhibitions and congresses that take place in the Catalan capital each year. The Mobile World Congress returned to business this summer, but the world’s largest audiovisual sector trade show, ISE, is also planning on having its first full-sized event in Barcelona next February, after hosting a reduced edition this year.

Arguments against 

While there are plenty of economic reasons to expand the airport, there are also many reasons against it too. 

For starters, the climate emergency will only be worsened with more and more flights taking place in the world. Extreme weather events such as Storms Gloria and Filomena recently seen in Catalonia which caused widespread destruction and chaos, will only become more common, while dangerous, potentially deadly, heatwaves will become more intense in the summer months. 

A report from the Agency for Urban Development of Barcelona Regional estimates that the expansion of El Prat airport will increase CO₂ emissions by a minimum of 33%. 

At the Museum of Natural Sciences of Barcelona 300 different social, economic, neighborhood, environmental, farming and academic organizations met up in early July and presented a manifesto against the expansion of the airport, arguing it is unnecessary and harmful. 

They say the proposition is “unjustifiable and unfeasible” and argue there is a “total absence of technical, social, environmental, economic and financial justification" for the works. They also make the argument that 60% of the territory of the Llobregat Delta has already been lost, and if the proposals go ahead, it compromises the climate objectives of the Catalan government. 

Elsewhere, the La Ricarda lagoon is a significant area of wetland that is a habitat for many species of birds and other wildlife. Ducks, coots, gulls and other species can be seen regularly at the lake or in the nearby areas.

The current plans would see this natural space destroyed for the runway to be extended. 

In compensation, Aena puts forward the idea of expanding the protected natural zone on the side of the airport opposite to La Ricarda - but this carries its own set of problems, as much of that land is already used by farmers

“It seems like we don't exist,” Olivier Chantry of the Catalan Farmers Union, says to Catalan News. He mocks the plans of Aena, saying they want to “build a natural reserve because [they] will destroy another one.” 

He dismisses the intention to compensate for destroying the Ricarda lagoon with a natural zone 10 times bigger on agricultural land, “as if on the agricultural land there was no biodiversity and there were no farmers.” 

What comes next?

Aena, the airport authority, is 51% publicly owned by the Spanish government, with the remaining 49% being owned by shareholders. 

Its budget allocation operates in five-year cycles, and we are now coming to the end of the 2017-2021 period. 

Therefore, for the plans for Barcelona airport to go ahead, they need to be approved by the Spanish government at the very latest by their late September cabinet meeting, for them to be included in Aena’s 2022-2026 investment schedule. 

The Spanish government are unlikely to sign off on the plans without the buy-in of the Catalan government, nor are the European Commission, who have a say in the protection of La Ricarda. 

One of Pere Aragonès’s first actions after being elected president was to create a working group to decide the administration’s position on the matter, but Aena have been frustrated by the executive's indecision thus far.

Barcelona city council and El Prat have both come out against the plans, both run by Catalunya En Comú-Podem, the left-wing party against the proposition for climate change reasons and who generally favour sustainability. The council of El Prat also highlight their priority of preserving the delta and protecting the climate. 

CatECP are in favour of improving connectivity with the airports in Reus and Girona also, but Aena rejects this as unworkable for Barcelona to become a “hub” of international flight activity. 

However, local councils in Castelldefels, Gavà, Sant Boi, Viladecans are all in favour of expanding the facility, with some conditions - that the current segregated system of how the two main runways operate are kept as they are. 

Increasing operations without touching La Ricarda

Barcelona airport’s two main runways operate in a segregated manner - the longer one nearer the mountains is almost exclusively used for landings, while the shorter one closer to the sea is almost exclusively used for takeoffs.

The reason for this is to allow planes taking off the chance to immediately take a sharp left as soon as they take off and not fly over the nearby towns of Castelldefels, Gavà, and others.

As such, even though the airport has the capability of flying a maximum of 90 operations per hour, it only reaches around 70-80 operations per hour. 

“We have the capacity to improve from 70 operations to 90, without the need to expand the length of the runway,” Òscar Oliver believes. 

There is nothing that forces the runways to be organized in this manner beyond a “gentleman’s agreement” between Aena officials and the locals, which Aena are pushing to formally write into law, and there is an argument to change this system to increase the amount of take-offs and landings as it would increase the capacity of the airport without the need to destroy the La Ricarda lagoon. 

Oliver also makes the point that there is a “congestion” of flights in the earliest hours of the morning and in the middle of the evening, while more operations could come in and out of the airport with a more evenly distributed flight schedule. 

“In my opinion, at this moment, it’s not necessary to extend the third runway to 3,000 metres,” Oliver says. “La Ricarda is a very important natural reserve in southern Europe, it’s important for birds, it’s important for different reasons to preserve this natural area.”

“It will not go on,” Olivier Chantry declares. “We will fight and as a public interest, we will not accept this expansion that has no sense for climate issues, for biodiversity and for food issues.”

Filling the Sink podcast

Press play below to listen to Filling the Sink, the Catalan News podcast, on the debate surrounding the expansion of the El Prat airport. 

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