Business 06/06/2021

The dilemma of El Prat

Airport expansion faces environmental and economic repercussions

3 min
Options for the future of El Prat

BarcelonaMaurici Lucena, CEO of Aena, the public company which manages all of Spain's airports, has set a deadline. He has asked Catalan institutions to get their act together and decide before the end of the summer whether they want to expand El Prat airport. This expansion project, however, has divided public opinion, and experts are calling for a calm debate to deal with it.

What project does Aena have to convert El Prat into a hub?

Before airports emptying due to the pandemic, Aena began to meet administrations at the end of 2019 to propose this expansion project. This plan brought back the idea for a satellite terminal for long-haul flights and an ambition to lengthen the third runway by 500 metres to allow larger planes to fly transoceanic routes. These works, the company claims, would allow for an increase in capacity to 70 million passengers per year, above the current theoretical limit of 55 million. In 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, 52.6 million passengers passed through the airport. Aena says it would make a €1.7bn investment.

What deadlines are there to make this decision?

This is one of the key points that has added a sudden sense of urgency to the debate. Aena assures that to avoid capacity problems the expansion has to be included in DORA II, the airport regulation document for the period 2022-2027. The text is already in the hands of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, and once a consensus has been found, the Spanish government will have to give it the green light. The goal is to have the approval of the State, its first shareholder, in September. This DORA II would include the drafting of projects and minor works to start the earthworks, but the bulk of the investment would be made in the next five-year plan, from 2027 to 2031. "Not keeping these deadlines would cause five years of a collapsed airport," Aena sources insist . Even so, other voices in the industry consider that the rush is not justified and that the roadmap could be adapted to allow a more calm dialogue.

What would be the environmental impact of extending the third runway?

The ecological organisations and neighbourhood associations denounce that the works would affect Ricarda lagoon, a natural area protected by the Natura 2000 Network. These wetlands are the habitat of an important population of aquatic birds, which also use this point as a stopping point in their migrations. The biodiversity of the Ricarda also includes a score of different species of orchids and native vegetation such as stone pines. Experts argue that this ecosystem is documented since the seventeenth century, but the president of Aena, Maurici Lucena, claims that it is an "artificial" environment and that works could replicate these spaces in other parts of the delta. He proposes to multiply tenfold each of the affected hectares. The European Commission - which has to validate the project - has alerted the administrations that the environmental compensations for the previous airport expansion are yet to be completed, a fact that has contributed to the degradation of these ecosystems.

What alternatives are there to Aena's proposal?

Extending the runway through the Ricarda lagoon is not the only option being studied by experts. There are grey areas between yes and no to the extension. The airport's capacity could be sponged if the sequence of aircraft is optimised, recalls César Trapote, air transport consultant and professor at the School of Telecommunications Engineering and Aerospace of the UPC. That is to say, reducing the time between take-offs and landings. In addition, there are off-peak hours and seasons in which the airport has room to grow. Another option would be to change runway use: the long runway is currently only used for landing and the short runway for take-off. This, however, is a red line for the neighbours who suffer its acoustic impact, as the long runway is closer to residential areas and it would generate more noise. It should be borne in mind that, according to industry sources, large aircraft with these limitations currently represent under 6% of aircraft headquartered in El Prat.

What do the different parties involved think?

Aena has obtained the unconditional support of the main economic players but it is also necessary to find a consensus with the Generalitat (which has to ask Brussels to modify the area protected by the Natura 2000 Network) and the neighbouring city councils. Barcelona and El Prat councils have been forceful in their rejection of the project, while Castelldefels has made its support conditional to current runway use being maintained. The new government has convened a table to resolve the assembly, but the position is not quite the same in ERC as in Junts. While the vice-president, Jordi Puigneró, defended on Wednesday that Catalonia "cannot afford not to have an airport prepared for the 21st century", president Aragonès remarked that this is not "a binary question".

Xavier Fageda, professor of applied economics at Barcelona University: "The expansion is necessary and will end up being inevitable"
  • Why does enlargement have to be approved? It is necessary and will end up being inevitable. First, because of the airport's economic activities and the jobs it would generate, we can't afford to give up. Secondly, because good direct connections are a major factor in attracting foreign investment.
  • Is there a risk of saturation? Just before the pandemic the airport was already at the limit of its capacity and the delay indicators were among the worst in Europe. The recovery to pre-pandemic levels is expected by 2024 and 2025, but it must be borne in mind that it will be years before investments are made.
Sara Mingorría, economist and researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology: "Aviation is the new coal"
  • Why should the expansion be stopped? Aviation is one of the industries that contributes most to climate change. It is called "the new coal". International networks such as Stay Grounded, made up of more than 200 academic, activist and civil society organisations, show that the only alternative is to shrink this sector. The expansion and construction of new airports generates noise and air pollution, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, forced displacement, violation of human rights...
  • What does the project put the delta at risk? This ecosystem is protected by the Natura 2000 network because it is home to a great biodiversity and is one of the most fertile and richest agricultural areas in the Mediterranean. Protecting the Ricarda means protecting the coastal aquifers, which are very vulnerable to small changes. Currently there are already problems of marine intrusion and salinisation.