Aena plans to increase the number of passengers at Palma Son Sant Joan | R.L.


Spain’s airports authority Aena has a plan to extend a runway and to build a new satellite terminal at the Barcelona-El Prat Airport. Investment of some 1.7 billion euros would create new infrastructure for an increase to 70 million passengers per annum. In 2019, there were 53 million passengers - El Prat was Spain’s second busiest airport after Madrid-Barajas and the sixth busiest in Europe.

As one might imagine, as ‘tis ever thus with airport expansion plans, opinion is well and truly divided. Aena claims that 20,000 new jobs could be created for what would become an international hub to act as a bridge between Asia and transatlantic routes. The economy of Catalonia would grow by some two per cent, El Prat already equating to around seven per cent of regional GDP.

The other view is that carbon dioxide emissions will increase by a third and that the extension of the runway would mean a clearing of the La Ricarda wetlands, home to various species of birds and other wildlife. Aena has said that it will undertake a “rewilding” project on the other side of the airport, a proposal that has been met with derision from environmentalists.

Aena is 51% owned by the Spanish government, so the expansion plan for El Prat (there is also one for Madrid) has a particularly political context, and this is right at the centre of the government. The parties of government - PSOE and Podemos - are on a collision course.
Co-spokesperson for Podemos, Pablo Fernández, has openly stated that he expects the projects for both airports to be frustrated.

The investment, he argues, should go on railways and alternative means of transport. The plans for Barcelona and Madrid are “contrary” to the government’s sustainability policies and to combating climate change.

Fernández has advocated the banning of flights on routes where there is a rail alternative and to penalise general use of air travel - intervention to raising the price of tickets, for instance. “We must study the best and most dissuasive measures so that such a polluting means of travel is not used so intensively. Sustainable transport is not just the future, it is the only option.”

The Spanish government’s so-called air ecotax, from which flights between the Balearics and the mainland will be exempt, might be thought to be a dissuasive measure, but it is unlikely to prove to be dissuasive and it is way short of what Fernández and Podemos want. The government has meanwhile given its blessing to the El Prat expansion, the minister for territorial policy, Isabel Rodríguez (PSOE), having stressed that it will turn the airport into an international hub.

It can seem contrary for airport expansion plans to even be being considered given what has happened over the past almost eighteen months. But future planning never ceases. The pandemic has forced a pause and reduction in international air travel. Time to move on and to a future which presupposes that there will be inevitable and seemingly unending growth.

However, coincidental to the shock (temporary) of the pandemic has been the increasing shock (not temporary) of the evidence regarding the climate emergency. Expanding airport infrastructure for an ever expanding passenger base seems counterintuitive. It goes absolutely to the heart of the economy-environment dichotomy, one for which there is the intention to have a sustainable mobility resolution, yet can appear inherently loaded against the environmental side of the equation.

Palma Son Sant Joan is a different proposition to El Prat or Barajas in terms of any international hub status, but it is Spain’s third busiest airport and Aena’s plans envisage an increase in passenger numbers to roughly half the number foreseen for the growth of El Prat. There were 29.7 million passengers in 2019. The expansion, which Aena doesn’t describe as expansion (it’s a “remodelling”), contemplates around 34 million.

I increasingly agree with the opponents of this expansion. I was always doubtful as to the sense, but with the undoubted climate emergency and the prospect of “territorial collapse” within thirty years, as argued by the Spanish government’s secretary general for the democratic challenge, Francesc Boya, I can’t see any grounds for expansion. This would primarily be to accommodate more tourists, but the human pressure index and carrying capacity point to the unsustainable nature of yet more tourists (once the pandemic reduction is corrected).

The arguments about El Prat and Barajas are different because these are airports with different purposes to Palma, but they don’t differ in terms of principle. Pablo Fernández has highlighted an apparent contradiction in Spanish government policy. Is it pursuing sustainability or is it not?