Spain’s Economic Woes Encapsulated In One Airport

Few sites so encapsulate Spain’s economic woes as succinctly as Castellon Airport.

Conceived of back in 1997, with the euro (and easy credit) just around the corner, big projects seemed a sound investment. Over the next 10 years would see house prices rise by over 200%. In the spirit of the age, Castellon’s regional government agreed to build a new airport, not least to bring in the pot-bellied Brits in their droves for their annual 2 weeks of sunburn and San Miguel.

On the face of it, it was a great idea. Much like building houses; it keeps people working, spurs the local economy, and some can be sold to the ex-pat looking for a warmer life. Spain built over 1 million of these houses in two years in the good times.

So how did this airport, once heralded as the ‘future’ for the region, end up like those 1 million houses; empty, and without an owner?

Firstly, the airport was an attempt to replicate the successes of Reus and Valencia airports (ignoring the vast government subsidies used to keep these running, equal to up to 80 euros per passenger). But even a cursory look at a map showed that it sits between these two airports, so any travel to there would simply take away from the other two airports. There was no evidence that the region lacked capacity. Any market analyst worth his salt would have told planners that airlines prefer to fly to popular destinations, and Castellon simply doesn’t have the same draw as the Costa del Sol.

Undeterred by pesky evidence, a small army of consultants was tasked with finding a suitable loction for the airport. Their choice was an almost inaccessible hill. But no matter, the government then authorised expenditure on a new motorway to the airport at a cost of 13 million euros.

Having selected the delightfully hilly location, the consultants only then realised that most of the land was privately owned. So the land was bought, but from owners now savvy enough to know how valuable their real estate had just become. The average plot was bought for 300,000 euros.

By this point, its 2004, a full seven years after the idea was first agreed by the regional government, and not even a runway in sight.

The airport was finally finished in 2007, at a cost of 150 million euros. But it cannot open because it needs licences to operate aircraft.

Then there are the ferrets. A half million euros to a normal person is a lot to spend for eight ferrets, but not to the Dons. The animals, along with some falcons and a handler, were to be deployed at Castellon’s airport to control populations of birds and rabbits that might endanger aircraft. The contract pays the ferret wrangler an annual salary of 450,000 euros for the ferrets and falcons to work six hours a day.

Whilst wrangling to get licences to fly, the runway is found to not be wide enough to actually certain aircraft, a runway that is by now cracked because the contractors used sub-par materials to save money.

The airport opens in March 2012 but still lacks the licences to handle aircraft, and nor are airlines interested in providing services to the airport.

Carlos Fabra, then-CEO of AEROCAS, president of the regional government and key force behind the airport, is accused of being the principal reason for the airport’s failings. He pushed for the location, he secured the contracts for the shoddy runway; he was in charge of getting the flight licenses. But rather than face the fury of the taxpayer, Fabra had an 80 foot statue dedicated to him. A statue which cost 375,000 euros.

The airport opens in March 2012 but still lacks the licences to handle aircraft, and nor are airlines interested in providing services to the airport.

To his credit, Fabra tried to raise at least a little revenue from the project by lending the site to a film crew. To date, is has been the only occasion an actual aircraft has been at the airport, although how it got there is still a mystery.

Fabra has encouraged others to use the airport too, namely a DTM racing team who used it for testing.  For free. Or at least no money was initially paid by the team to the government but to Fabra directly.

In the meantime, the regional government is in debt by 250 billion euros, and Fabra has over 90 allegations of fraud and corruption to face in court. And in a final tragic twist, last month air authorities in Spain ruled that the airport couldn’t handle ‘large’ aircraft because the runway was built on soft ground…

Dominic Butler

1 COMMENT

  1. Interesting article. But do the English-speaking world a favour and research ‘passive vs. active voice’. Thanks.

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