Spain’s 'Ghost Airports': A National Embarrassment?

Spain’s 'Ghost Airports': A National Embarrassment?

Why you should care

Empty airports are a symbol of Spain’s economic struggle — and a caution about what can go wrong.

Whoever said “Build it and they will come” hasn’t visited Spain lately. The country is filled with abandoned construction sites and “for sale” signs after the bursting of the construction bubble in 2009.

Spaniards built not just housing during the boom of the early 2000s but airports galore. Yet out of Spain’s 46 publicly managed airports, only 8 are making a profit.

The rest are struggling to break even. About 20 of them have barely any passengers. Spaniards call them “ghost airports.”

Airports like those in Burgos, Sabadell and Albacete used to stand as symbols of modernity and economic growth. Today they’re a national embarrassment: Terminals sit eerily empty, luggage belts gather dust and some runways host illegal drag races.

The construction of Huesca-Pirineos Airport cost $80 million. But in 2011 it saw only 2,781 of the predicted 160,000 passengers for the year. Since 2012, commercial flights stopped operating through Huesca, though it does house a restaurant popular with the locals.

Among all of Spain’s airport failures, perhaps the worst is Ciudad Real. The country’s first private international airport cost $1.4 billion to build, with dreams of servicing 2 million travelers a year. It opened in 2009 but has not seen a commercial flight since 2012. It was to act as Madrid’s second main airport — despite being 146 miles south of the city. Plans for a high-speed train connecting the airport to the capital fell through when the money ran dry.

…a fatal combination of developers’ greed, lack of foresight and easy money…

The airport of Burgos is also struggling with just 8,767 passengers so far in 2014. It’s one of six airports of its kind within an 80-mile radius. The airports of Logroño, Vitoria, Bilbao, Santander and Valladolid are all within competitive striking distance. Similarly, passengers in the region of Galicia can choose from three airports, all less than an hour-and-a-half drive from one another: Santiago de Compostela, Coruña and Vigo.

How did it get so out of hand? It was a fatal combination of developers’ greed, lack of foresight and easy money during the boom years.

Many of these projects made no financial sense from the start. Eager politicians pushed them though, keen to improve their public image and gain votes. The entrance to the airport of Castellón — a $200 million building with zero commercial passengers since 2012 — is dominated by an 80-foot statue representing the Province’s president, Carlos Fabra. Fabra is serving a four-year prison sentence for tax fraud.

Corruption and mismanagement also played their part. The Aerocas society, which manages the passenger-less airport of Castellón, reportedly spent $520,000 on personnel costs — despite having only seven employees — and more than $6.7 million on marketing in 2011 alone.

Many of the ghost airports are now for sale. Ciudad Real went up for auction last year for just $135 million — a tenth of the building cost — and was recently lowered to $107 million due to the lack of bids. Others, like Burgos, are starting to slowly recover thanks to Spain’s increase in tourism and hope to get back on their feet.

Still, until the economy takes off, many of these airports will continue to serve as restaurants, drag-race venues and, most of all, reminders that pride often comes before the fall.

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