An eventual extension of Barcelona-El Prat airport is once again at the center of the political debate after the proposal to build a new runway over the sea, but the doubts that stopped the project in 2021, after an agreement in principle between the Government and the central executive whose content was not written, remain unresolved.
On February 1, the Government and the socialist parliamentary group agreed, within the framework of the pact of the Catalan budgets of 2023, a text on the airport.
Both parties agreed to create during this year “a technical commission that allows to agree on the new airport model that Catalonia needs”, so that El Prat “gains capacity and becomes a true intercontinental hub”, in a wording that avoids the word “expansion” and does not mention Aena (BME:AENA).
WHY EXPAND IT?
In 2019, before the pandemic, El Prat registered 52.6 million passengers, a figure close to its current limit capacity, which is about 55 million passengers per year.
The COVID-19 crisis has had a full impact on air transport. In 2022, 41.63 million passengers passed through this airport; in January 2023 in Barcelona there were 6% fewer passengers than 2019, but in all Spanish airports pre-covid figures have already been reached.
A priori, the objective of the expansion would be to make possible greater intercontinental connections with Barcelona, not with the aim of multiplying the number of tourists but to facilitate the installation of international corporations and large events such as the MWC or the ISE.
WHAT PITFALLS ARE THERE?
Barcelona tends to see its growth projects limited: on the one hand the sea prevents going further and on the other the Collserola mountain acts as a barrier.
The aerodrome is seen in a similar position: it is surrounded by the Llobregat Delta, which contains natural areas belonging to the Natura 2000 network, protected by the European Commission.
An eventual extension affecting the Delta would only be possible if two European directives are respected, the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive. The Habitats Department states that priority species may be invoked to alter a natural habitat priority species “only considerations related to human health and public safety, or related to positive consequences of primary importance for the environment, or, after consulting the Commission, other imperative reasons of overriding public interest, may be invoked”.
The Llobregat Delta has already been the subject of an infringement procedure opened by the European Commission to Spain, still unresolved. It has nothing to do with the new expansion plans and is in its infancy, but it could end the case before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).
WHAT OPTIONS HAVE BEEN CONSIDERED?
Officially, only Aena, the airport manager, has sent a proposal, still in force. Foment del Treball, which created a commission on the issue in September, has reported that it is considering 9 possible alternatives, of which it has not offered details; The employers will present their conclusions in July.
Aena proposes to extend the third runway – the closest to the sea – towards Barcelona by 500 metres – which would be included in an investment of 1,700 million euros. This project was the one popularized by La Ricarda, belonging to the aforementioned Natura 2000 network, which would be affected by the extension of the runway.
Similar proposals have also been sounded out from civil society but with modifications – that the extension be less than 500 meters or that it is also done in the opposite direction – all with more inconveniences than the original, in the opinion of Aena, which has never endorsed them.
Building a track over the sea, as proposed by a group of professionals led by engineer Joaquim Coello, is not now on the table, according to the sources consulted, although this approach and its hypothetical environmental impact has revived in recent days the debate around the future of El Prat.
WHAT IF THE OPERATION CHANGED?
One option that has not been wanted to bet on is to change the operation of runways increasing the frequency of flights to 90 operations per hour, which would avoid having to undertake a physical expansion of the infrastructure.
The administrations have so far ruled out this possibility because it would imply greater noise nuisance for residents of Castelldefels and Gavà.
A study by the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce calculates that with this option the acoustic impact of the neighbors would triple, going from 4,199 people affected by noise to 12,653 – in any case, a smaller affectation than in Heathrow (London), Brussels, Amsterdam or Orly (Paris).
REUS AND GIRONA, ALTERNATIVE?
In full negotiations, in 2021, the Government insisted on promoting Reus and Girona to attract short-haul flights and that El Prat would mainly host medium and long-range flights. That is, it would not be necessary to expand El Prat, but to complement its offer with two nearby airports.
But, beyond the fact that airlines do not see this possibility with good eyes, sources in the sector emphasize that a ‘hub’ like the one proposed should be an easy and fast stopover point: in short, get to Barcelona from another point in Europe to be able to fly to another continent, or vice versa. Adding Reus and Girona to the equation complicates everything.
IS THERE A POLITICAL AGREEMENT?
Govern and PSC have agreed to the creation of an institutional commission in which to study the detail of the different alternatives.
From the outset, the central government has been in favor of enlargement and has supported Aena, despite the rejection of Unidas Podemos.
ERC, under the command of the Government, advocates that the expansion is not done “neither towards the sea nor towards La Ricarda”. The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, and the mayor of El Prat de Llobregat, Lluís Mijoler, both of the commons, oppose the expansion because of its environmental impact.
There will hardly be news before March 10, when the Parliament will approve the budgets, or May 28, the date of the municipal elections. The president of Foment, Josep Sánchez Llibre, has taken it for granted that the institutional commission will not start until September.
The negotiation accelerated – and failed – in 2021 because in September of that year the AENA plan was approved with the investments for the next five years. Thus, and lost this train, the new horizon is located in 2026, when Aena will validate its next five-year plan.