Society 17/03/2022

Controversy over possible airport expansion in Girona

Allegations against the Master Plan speak of an attack on sustainability and unrealistic growth figures

Arnau Segura
6 min
Girona airport, in Vilobí d'Onyar.

Vilobí d'Onyar (Gironès)Like streets, airports have also filled with people once again, now that the worst days of the coronavirus are over. For example, Ryanair is confident of recovering pre-pandemic passenger numbers in Catalonia, and even to increase them. It expects to carry over one million passengers from Girona between April 1, 2022 and March 31, 2023. The airline started the summer season just 15 days ago with more than a hundred routes from Barcelona, Girona and Reus. Six of these routes correspond to new destinations, even though one, Lviv, cannot operate due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The other new routes are Frankfurt, Perugia and La Palma, from Barcelona, and Helsinki and Nuremberg, from Girona. This year Girona has also recovered flights to Paris and Leeds. In total, via Ryanair, from Girona you can fly to 24 destinations, more than twice as many as from Reus, and to eleven countries: Germany (5 destinations), Ireland and the United Kingdom (4 in each country), Poland (3), Italy (2) and Belgium, Finland, France, Latvia, Morocco and also Spain (Santiago de Compostela).

Ryanair, which in Girona employs 30 workers directly and more than 700 workers indirectly, presented the summer campaign on February 10, the same day that the meeting room of Can Roscada, in Vilobí d'Onyar, hosted a meeting of neighbours to discuss the concerns raised by the growth (in land) of the airport. Aena's new Master Plan foresees the expansion of facilities in the event of an increase in the number of passengers. The expansion would require the expropriation of houses and land, but the affected neighbours do not know when it would happen, if it does, nor how much they would be paid. "There are a lot of nervous people," warns Quim Vivas, Vilobí's town planning councillor. The meeting on February 10, convened by the City Council itself, brought together dozens of neighbours and gave some answers to the many questions raised by the plan and to start preparing allegations. They can be submitted until next Tuesday. The City Council and the neighbours will do so.

Vivas adds: "We are not against progress nor an extension, if it has to be done it should be done, but the way it is proposed is very cruel for the affected neighbours. And it creates a great defencelessness, because in the end Aena is a monster. Perhaps it cares little about the neighbours who live here, but, of course, these neighbours are having a hard time". In fact, Aena's previous Master Plan for Girona airport already foresaw this expansion and expropriations.

Residents of Vilobí d'Onyar who may be affected by the expansion of Girona airport.

Seasonal airport

Marc Chicharro, originally from Vilobí d'Onyar and aeronautical engineer, explained that "The historical annual maximum of Girona airport, a seasonal airport, very focused on summer, is the 5.5 million passengers of 2008" and recalls: "In 2006 a Master Plan was made that predicted that in 2010 it would reach seven million passengers and in 2015, eight, and that in 2020 we would almost be at nine. At that time there were already many doubts about the viability of the plan, because the viability of the entire airport was based on one company, Ryanair. And the locals were saying: "If Ryanair leaves, what will happen?" Ryanair started flying from Barcelona over a decade ago, and Girona airport lost passengers progressively. In 2019, the last year before covid , it stood at 1.9 million passengers. "The Master Plan was a bit forgotten, because the airport had stabilised below two million," Chicharro points out, "but now, I guess because European funds have come in and expenses have to be justified, it has been reactivated. And with forecasts that are almost the same, but 20 years out of date". The new Master Plan foresees reaching up to seven million passengers in a normal scenario and up to ten million in a very favourable scenario. "I say «now we will get it right»," but all this raises many doubts. "If we didn't get it right in 2006, what makes us think that we will now?" warns Chicharro, who is helping the City Council and the neighbours to prepare the allegations.

High-speed rail, not even in the next 10 years

In this sense, the big difference between the 2006 plan and the current one is the construction of a high-speed train station at the airport to link the facility with Barcelona and increase the number of users. Vivas, councillor of Vilobí d'Onyar, explains that an engineering firm from the Basque Country won the tender to carry out the study of alternatives and has 24 months to carry out the study of where the station should be located. After that, there will still be many steps to go. "We will see the station, if all goes well, ten years from now, eight years at the very least, because these processes are super slow: you know when they start, but not when they end," he says. Still, the question remains as to whether the new station will generate enough travellers to justify the expansion, in addition to the uncertainty created by the impact of coronavirus on international tourism.

"Yes, now there will be a high-speed train, but what commercial agreements are behind it? Are there any? With which companies?", questions Chicharro. Furthermore, he states that this situation would raise two scenarios. The first, which would not be correct, but which according to Chicharro would at least be intelligent, is to expand with the idea of taking traffic out of Barcelona and using Girona as Barcelona's low-cost airport. "For Barcelona it would be fantastic: it would take away airplanes, flights, noise and pollution. But they would bring it to Girona without any benefits or returns," he says. It would be the only intelligent scenario because it is the only one that could explain the numbers they have put forward. But Girona has to ask itself if this is the airport model it wants. Because not even Sarfa [the local bus company] would benefit: passengers would land, take the high-speed train and go to Barcelona," he adds. "All this has not been said, but if it is not this, if they have simply made up the data as they did in 2006 and said "it will grow because it will grow", it is an aberration", says Chicharro.

Absurd forecasts

Chicharro believes that Aena's forecasts "are absurd" and that the figures being put forward "are abominable, they have been shown to be unrealistic". In the maximum development scenario, of ten million, they propose two runways. Stansted in London operates with one runway and had some 27 million passengers before the pandemic. "Really, a person who says that for ten million we need two runways is someone who is very keen to tarmac," Chicharro argues. "We are talking about making Girona [airport] bigger than Seville's or Valencia's, which have 6 or 7 million passengers. Who thought of these numbers? What strategy is behind them? Who is responsible for all this money if these numbers don't end up happening? Who pays for all this? It seems like it's nobody's money, but it's everybody's," he adds. In addition, Chicharro also regrets that "in Spain, unfortunately, it is not the first time that we see ghost airports: it has happened in Lleida, Castelló or Ciudad Real, multi-million investments at a time when there is no money even to pay doctors". He concludes: "This is textbook speculation, and is very sad for the neighbors".

He also points out that both the 2006 Master Plan and the current one foresee that expropriations will be made progressively as passenger milestones are achieved. "But these milestones are not public. What are they? Everything is completely opaque." He believes that it would have to be foreseen that if in a number of years the Master Plan has not been executed, it would have to be cancelled. "It cannot be reactivated forever. Because you condemn the owners to have devalued assets forever. The general interest is above the private interest, but only for a while", Chicharro concludes.

In this sense, Vivas, councillor of Vilobí d'Onyar, regrets that the affected neighbours live with a sword of Damocles over their heads. "If they fix the house, will they be paid more because it is more beautiful? Should they sell it? Because who will buy a house affected by a possible demolition order?" Regarding the future of the allegations, he resignedly admits that he sees little hope, because "in the public interest they are capable of going over anyone's head". Aena will not make any statements until the deadline for submitting the allegations ends this Tuesday.

The priority is the climate crisis

Allegations will also be presented, in a coordinated manner, from the platforms SOS Costa Brava, Associació de Naturalistes de Girona, Girona pel Clima, Rebel·lió o Extinció Girona (XRGirona) and ZerØport. Sergi Nuss, member of SOS Costa Brava, points out: "It makes no sense to propose this investment. Because the figures given to justify it are absolutely unrealistic and because it is an attack on present and future sustainability. Right now, as was already criticised of El Prat airport and the proposed Olympic Games in the Pyrenees, the great priority that the State and the Generalitat should have in public investment is to address the climate crisis. But in the face of this global crisis, almost a survival crisis, they continue to put as a main development priority to expand large infrastructures that have enormous costs that mean more public debt and that deepen the climate crisis".

Railway investment

In addition, Nuss states that it is an attack "not only because of the consumption of land that it immediately represents, but also because it favours the increase of CO2 emissions derived from air transport, which we have to stop immediately, and because of the effect it generates towards this type of tourism of going to spend a weekend at the Costa Brava from Genoa, Rome or London". And he also claims that "if there is to be any investment in mobility infrastructures to favour tourism, in a context of a climate crisis, it should be in rail transport, which is much more sustainable than the airplane". "We cannot grow any more, neither urbanistically nor in infrastructures. And not only can we not grow any more, but we have to start controlling and limiting tourist flows," Nuss argues.