Business 04/08/2021

Is the expansion of El Prat airport enough to turn it into an airline hub?

Experts question whether the infrastructure could attract enough demand in such a consolidated market

3 min
View of the Prado airport with planes of Vueling, its main company.

BarcelonaSupporters of the expansion of El Prat airport sealed on Monday between the State and the Generalitat defend it by saying it would turn it into an airline hub. This would mean it would concentrate a large amount of connecting flights, usually thanks to one or two airlines who use it as their main airport. The most classic metaphor is the spoke and wheel: all the spokes go to the centre from where you can continue to any other of the outer points.

This system is perfectly represented by major European airports such as Heathrow, Charles De Gaulle or Frankfurt. "A very clear example is Schiphol, KLM's hub, which attracts passengers from all over Europe. If it were to rely solely on demand to and from Amsterdam, it would not be able to sustain itself, but by feeding its flights it can complement local demand and offer more flights than the local market would allow," explains Pere Suau-Sanchez, a lecturer at the UOC and Cranfield University who specialises in the airline industry. But in the face of Aena's promise to turn Barcelona into an airline with a €1.7bn investment, we ask experts in aeronautical management whether this is truly enough to join this club.

"It is fine for the airport to build favourable conditions, but what is decisive is for there to be an airline company to set it up. A hub is the airline's tool for channelling passengers to long-haul flights," says Suau-Sanchez. Ultimately, then, whether El Prat becomes a place to switch to intercontinental flights depends mainly on airlines' commercial interest and the evolution of a sector severely punished by the restrictions on mobility due to the pandemic.

"Airports are not hubs; they host airline-operated hubs," clarifies a study published in June by public agency Barcelona Regional. This report also remarked that in El Prat there is currently no airline that uses it with this function and it is estimated connecting passengers make up around 7%, far from the 22% of Barajas or 55% of Frankfurt. In this sense, Vueling, the main company at the airport, presented last month a platform to manage connecting flights. "The market conditions are not favourable for the emergence of a company that offers connecting flights from the airport", insisted Barcelona Regional's report. Precisely, the sector has seen how in recent years some of these hubs have lost strength in favour of well established airports. "The market for hubs is very consolidated, the same as the airline market", Suau-Sanchez points out.

Aeronautical engineer Maria Savall points out the confusion that can be generated by the use of the word the English loan word hub. In addition, there are still questions about the impact the expansion would have on Barcelona's connectivity with Asia or North America. "The benefits that would be obtained by extending the third runway over the Ricarda are difficult to quantify. What will establish whether Barcelona fits in with what is a hub is the volume of operations and their destination, and no one can say that for sure," she adds.

Beyond the traditional hub

Aena insists in its commitment to make El Prat a hub but shies away from the traditional model. "That's the model of the past," airport director Sonia Corrochano defended in an interview with ARA. She speaks of so-called "new generation hubs", infrastructures that gravitate without a company that takes on this role. "As there is no company whose business model is to offer connections, the airport can act as a facilitator between airlines that do not have agreements to connect passengers. Companies like Dohop offer technological solutions so that passengers can book the right combination of flights and the airport can facilitate the connection. This is the case of GatwickConnects in London," explains Suau-Sanchez.

Finally, there is still one last doubt: if Spain already has Barajas, is it possible for a state to have two hubs? When asked this question, Aena gives the example of Boston, which despite being located some 350 kilometres from New York's JFK airport, enjoys a wide range of intercontinental connections, supported in large part by its academic community. Germany also adds Munich to its Frankfurt hub, although the former relies mainly on Lufthansa's long-haul flights, which the latter cannot handle.

Podemos highlights the clash within the Spanish government

In recent weeks of debate over the expansion of El Prat airport, voices against the project from Podemos had come mainly from Catalonia. This Wednesday, however, Green Alliance coordinator and Podemos MP Juantxo Lopez de Uralde has broken the silence stating that "it is not the right decision" in a situation of "climate emergency" in which we have to move towards a reduction of emissions. "It is necessary to leave euphemisms behind and say that a policy for the future involves a reduction in infrastructures", he said about the declarations of Catalan vice-president Puigneró to turn it into the "greenest airport in Europe". His statements have shown the internal tension generated by the project between the two partners in the Spanish coalition government, Unidas Podemos and the Socialists.