Global hub or diversified options? Political parties divided over airport expansion

Most parties want to expand facilities, others say alternative airport management can provide solutions

A Shenzhen Airlines airplane flying between Barcelona and the Chinese city of Shenzhen
A Shenzhen Airlines airplane flying between Barcelona and the Chinese city of Shenzhen / Àlex Recolons
Catalan News

Catalan News | @catalannews | Barcelona

May 10, 2024 11:10 AM

The future of Barcelona's El Prat airport has been a debate topic for years which intensified in 2021 with the last deadline for funding allocations from the transport authority, dividing political parties, the business world, and local entities. 

All political parties agree that the airport should become an intercontinental hub in one form or another, except for far-left pro-independence CUP. 

While the Socialists, pro-independence Junts+, far-right Vox, liberal Cuidadanos and conservative People's Party all want to push forward with expanding the airport's facilities, pro-independence ERC and left-wing Comuns Sumar want to improve the airport's competitiveness without constructing further.  

Central to the debate is the plan to extend the 24L/06R runway, the closest one to the sea, and any works on that runway would affect the Ricarda Natural Park lagoon. The airport's operator, Aena, is in favor of extending the runway towards the lagoon.  

In April, the government proposed to use the runways for both takeoffs and landings during July and August, to increase the number of flights arriving and departing to up to 90 every hour. However, Spanish transport minister Óscar Puente rejected the proposal. 

Airport expansion plans 

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 latest 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. 

Parties in favor

The Socialist Party's number two in Barcelona, Alícia Romero, told the Catalan News Agency (ACN) that if they govern in the next legislature, the expansion of the airport is "one of the first decisions" they will take, noting that the Catalan economy "needs it" to improve exports and for the airport to gain competitiveness

She assures that they "will get to work with the necessary consensus, including that of the affected area" and that the expansion "can be done with respect for the natural environment," while also saying that extending the runway towards the sea would be the "most optimal" solution. 

Junts+ is committed to expanding the facilities with a terminal built at the apex of the sword-shaped T1 building, near the Ricarda Natural Park but without intruding on the natural space. They would also want to implement a new runway management system to reduce the time between planes landing and taking off. 

The party also believes the airport needs to be fully governed by the Catalan government to "stop being a subsidiary airport of Madrid and be able to compete on equal terms," candidate Josep Rull said. 

The expansion of the airport is necessary to respond to the needs of airlines according to Vox. "If Barcelona does not give them the option of profitability, they will prefer to go to other European hubs," Andrés Bello, number seven on Vox's list in Barcelona, said. 

Bello did not specify what Vox's proposal is to expand the airport but said that they will follow "the best technical criteria with the most respect for the environment." 

Marina Bravo of Ciudadanos says that her party is "very aware" that expanding the facilities will have an environmental impact but asks for people to remember that there is an "economic and social justification." She considers it possible to compensate in another area in the delta "with more land and better biodiversity conditions." 

Bravo asks for people to listen to the engineers to "negotiate whether to put more asphalt on one side of the runway or on both sides. This complex issue is being discussed, but in the end, an airport is an asphalted runway," he added. 

"It is important to expand to improve our touristic and business positioning, the airport has almost reached its maximum capacity. There is no optimal solution that allows us to avoid affecting third parties," People's Party official Santi Rodríguez said. 

The People's Party is not considering any constructions that involve the use of independent runways because of the direct harm to the well-being of the residents near the airport due to the noise increase.  

Against expansion 

ERC claims that "it is not inevitable to expand to be more competitive," but call the intention of Aena to extend the third runway into the lagoon "a completely absurd environmental attack" and states that it shows "an absolute lack of planning.” “The solution is not always to lay cement," Jordi Albert, one of the candidates for the party, said. 

The pro-independence party also demands that the management of the airport should be taken over by Catalonia, "Aena's criterion does not take into account the general interest," he added. 

"When we have the chance to take over managing of the airport, we will see how we can adapt the infrastructure to the real needs,” Comuns Sumar candidate, Lluís Mijoler, said. “The airport policies are now only determined by the interests of lobbies." 

Mijoler also adds that investments without management by the territory is "going the other way" from what the "climate emergency" situation requires. Their main option for the expansion would be to connect the Girona and Reus airports by train with El Prat to improve the competitiveness without disturbing the La Ricarda lagoon. 

CUP is also in favor of Catalonia managing the airports within the territory. "We must face a debate about the model of the territory made by us, not by Aena or by the Spanish government," the party reaffirms. They also say the number of passengers travelling through El Prat yearly should be reduced to combat the effects of climate change. 

Montserrat Vinyuets from CUP insists that "we need to think about reducing flights and building sustainable alternatives" and defends the preservation of the La Ricarda park, "but also the care of the right to decent health without additional noise." 

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 in the middle of the 2022-2026 period. Whoever is in power in government at the time, the debate will inevitably resurface when it comes to late 2026, when the next round of budget allocations will be distributed.