Son Sant Joan airport in Palma

Son Sant Joan airport in Palma.

15-07-2020R.L.

The Balearic parliament has rejected the plans for development at Son Sant Joan Airport that the airports authority Aena has presented. These were revised plans, Aena having met previous opposition to a project which it insists has to do with remodelling and modernisation rather than with increasing capacity.

The government parties were not alone in voicing their discontent with the plans, the opposition (with the exception of Vox) having pressed the case - once more - for co-management of the airport. In terms of immediate economic needs, Ciudadanos favoured a project as a means of creating employment, but the general view was that coronavirus is a further reason for making the plans unnecessary.

This was an understandable point of view, but one which also raised a question about the ability to conceive a future for which there is obvious uncertainty. Should development of infrastructure of this type be placed on hold or scrapped because the future is unknown? The Aena response would be be no; competitiveness going forward relies on investment in infrastructure. By association, this would also be the view of the Spanish government (part of it anyway; one can probably exclude Podemos). Notwithstanding the 49% private shareholding in the airports authority, it is still the Spanish government which calls the airport network shots, and Palma is a particularly good earner in terms of its profit-making capability.

The Podemos view in the Balearic parliament was summed up by Esperança Sans. She observed that the health crisis had changed the situation and was “one more argument” against the project. In addition, she implied a link between increased health risk and greater tourist “massification”, while she was more explicit in referring to “exorbitant consumption of resources” that this massification entails.

The project, for now, is probably dead in the water. But even if it isn’t, the crisis provides the opportunity to assess its desirability with greater depth than has already been the case. Hugely detrimental to the economy though coronavirus has been, it has allowed Majorca to pause and to consider its values - economically, socially, environmentally - in rather more contemplative fashion than was previously possible. When faced with an event as dramatic as coronavirus, minds are exercised in ways that they would not have been before.

However Aena has wished to dress its plans up, there is no denying that these envisage greater passenger numbers. The airports authority has admitted to an increase of some four million by 2025. The environmentalists Terraferida have extrapolated Aena data in coming up with a figure of over six million more by 2030 - 36 million passengers per annum.

The crisis, naturally enough, does call this growth into question, but if an assumption can be made of full recovery, are these the types of figure that Majorca really wants? Are they figures that are sustainable? Even without crisis, there were plenty of voices which were saying that they were not, and while those voices were predominantly from the eco-left, one suspects that there are now more people inclined to doubt the sustainability. The economic damage has been immense, but at the same time it has been possible to witness and to learn that there has been a regaining of environmental balance. A quieter Majorca, for some, hasn’t been unwelcome.

Prior to parliament voting down the Aena plans, Més had again called on Aena to undertake an analysis of the impact on the island’s carrying capacity from the increases in passenger numbers. In the past I have questioned why Aena should be responsible for such an analysis, but as Aena and Enaire, the state air navigation company, bring far more people to Majorca than any other entities, there is a case to be made for an analysis by Aena.
This call comes against the background of some not unexpected but nevertheless revealing data that are relevant to carrying capacity. The human pressure index for April showed that this pressure fell by 19% compared with the previous year and was the lowest that it had been since 1997. The excess population, however this is accounted for, was around 31,000 more than the registered population of the Balearics and a tenth of what it was in April 2019. In Palma, there were days in June when water consumption was down by a third. The Tramuntana reservoirs are currently at over 70%.

Water is one of the most important indicators, and in this regard, the Terraferida assessment of the Aena plans suggested an 18% increase in water consumption at the airport by 2030. With six million more passengers, island-wide consumption will obviously rise, thus placing additional strain on a resource that is threatened by climate change.

Tourism, it should go without saying, is absolutely vital to Majorca, but the crisis has deepened reflection on the nature and scale of tourism and on the dependence on tourism. De-growth may not be a bad thing, but only if (a big if, of course), there is compensation elsewhere in the economy. As for four or six million more passengers a year; Aena needs a rethink.

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