What are we going to do with El Prat airport?
In 2007, together with Germà Bel and Pedro Nueno, I had the honour of participating in the Iese event where Barcelona's civil and economic society demanded the individualised management of El Prat airport. That battle was lost. A tender called by the Zapatero government that would have represented an important advance was cancelled by the Rajoy government, in 2011, in one of its first decisions. Unfortunately, since then the prospect has receded.
In any case, it is to be welcomed that the airport's activity has increased significantly since 2007 and that, as a result, it is now one of the most important airports in Europe. The number of passengers has increased from 33 million in 2007 to 53 million in 2019. The number of intercontinental flights has also increased. As much as it needs to be improved, Barcelona is now well enough connected by air to make this a favourable factor for the location of international business initiatives. It is one of its key competitive advantages. To reach this point, both the attractive power of Catalonia and the work of the institutions, including the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce and Aena, have contributed, stimulated by the Olympic Games, to plan a new terminal that has allowed it to grow.
Now, the success puts us back at a crossroads. In 2019 the airport reached, in practice, its full capacity. To sustain the economic rhythm that we can foresee in the post-pandemic future, and to induce it, a satellite terminal and a reform of the runway configuration, with the extension of some of them, are needed. Aena says it is willing and eager to make the investment. I gather from a very recent presentation by its president in Tribuna Barcelona that it would be in the order of 1,700 million euros and that, for reasons of the European regulatory cycle, the decision to proceed would have to be taken in the next two or three months (the next opportunity would be in five years' time). However, lo and behold, we are stuck again, with the difference that now the blockage is coming from home. Now we would have to hold an event like the one at Iese to demand that the Catalan authorities facilitate the consolidation of a large airport in Barcelona. It would be very sad. We should have to avoid it.
Opposition derives from a combination of three factors:
1. One might think that limiting El Prat airport would favour the expansion of Reus and Girona airports. But this is not the case. Reus and Girona will prosper if Catalonia has an airport that is an international hub. And only El Prat airport can be it. And for this, it needs to be reformed.
2. The modification of the runway would require the redefinition of an area protected by the European Natura 2000 programme. In the EU-28 (which includes the UK) the Natura network covers 18% of the territory, in Spain 27.4% and in Catalonia 30%. I think this is very good and I would not want to give up protection of this magnitude, or even increase it. But we need a minimum of flexibility in where it is located. The Natura network protects biodiversity: species must be preserved, and they must therefore have a habitat. But the precise location can be adapted to other needs. I understand that Aena is very willing to guarantee a much larger habitat for the birds affected. It is a compromise that the EU would undoubtedly approve.
3. Air transport emits CO. That is true. But humanity will not solve this by eliminating flights but with a decarbonisation programme. In the future there will be air transport but the energy that will propel it will be green.
If we allow ourselves to be carried away by this reasoning we will damage the economy. We have learned from the pandemic that there are circumstances that justify a temporary economic sacrifice to avoid a greater evil. But what does not make sense is a permanent economic sacrifice to avoid evils that are perfectly avoidable with less drastic measures.
At the end of May we will have a president. I will conclude with the exhortation I would make to him at that time. Molt Honorable President: you have approximately one month left to reach an agreement on the airport issue, meet with the president of Aena, talk for as many hours as it takes and agree on a path that will allow the airport to be reformed. I assure you that if you take up this challenge you will send a strong signal of responsibility that will earn you a lot of credit, as well as lasting respect and trust from the Catalan economic and social actors. And if this is not done, I also assure you that the many who will be happy will not let you forget that this time the airport will have been blocked by Catalonia.
Andreu Mas-Colell is an economist, professor emeritus at the UPF and the Barcelona GSE.