Forward-planning, frustrated. Barcelona’s El Prat Airport

The president of Spanish budget airline Vueling caused an uproar earlier this year when he voiced his frustration at Barcelona’s El-Prat Airport not being able to expand (by adding an additional runway) because “you cannot pass over where Messi lives… this doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.”

That throwaway line caused an uproar. Global news channels scrambled to report the story about the superstar footballer whose whims prevented an airport from expanding. There were enough people who would take that statement at face value. It was not something that would be out of character – Messi was apparently so perturbed at the noise from his neighbours that he brought their property so that there would be even more peace and quiet around his house.  Realising that a statement made semi-seriously in a closed door presentation had taken a life of its own, Vueling issued a statement the next day clarifying their position.

If this was any other footballer (excluding Cristiano Ronaldo), no one would believe the statement so easily, the news wouldn’t have spread so fast and the company would not have rushed to clarify its President’s statement. If anything, this episode serves to reinforces how massive Lionel Messi is as a global star.

But it also says a lot about the pull of the city of Barcelona.

Located near the sea at the southern end of Barcelona the airport of El Prat first opened its doors in 1927 with a commerical air shuttle service between Madrid and Barcelona, a connection that still exists and was the busiests route in the world until 2008 (it is now the second busiest route in the EU). The busiest routes in the world today are mostly found in Asia with 8 or 10 of the busiests passenger routes located in the continent.

The airport has had consistent passenger growth since 1963 and its growth numbers have spiked in recent years stimulated mainly by budget airlines (Ryanair, Easyjet, Vueling and Norwegia ).

The airport served some 47 million passengers in 2017, 3 million more than in 2016. An expansion completed in 2009 saw the airport able to handle 55 million passengers. Barcelona’s recent growth has however come at the expense of other Catalonian airports such as Girona and Reus which have seen huge decreases in passenger numbers in recent years.

In 2012, the management declared plans to further expand the airport runway to enable the airport to manage 70 million passengers. That’s forward planning in a more far-sighted way than Berlin’s troubled aviation situation. It should be caveated that since much of the sharp increase in tourism numbers of Barcelona’s airport has to do with the growth of budget airlines, there growth can be considered more shaky ground, since a budget airline can easily move out of the airport taking with it a huge passenger load (in Ryanair’s case, 17 million) and passengers tend to follow the ticket price.

It is at this point however that snags have started to hit. The frustration expressed by the Vueling CEO and his throw away line about Lionel Messi while not correct have a basis in fact. Due to environmental concerns, the whole wealthy district that Lionel Messi and a number of his colleagues calls home is legally a no-fly zone. Not for humans but for the wildlife and the environment. This exclusive district (Gava-Castelldefels) is peaceful because it is surrounded by nature, including a nature reserve that houses wildlife as well as a Buddhist temple.

This state of affairs brings things into stark view. Tourism is an important part of the city’s economy and does has been growing massively. At the same time, physical connectivity with the world improves all other aspects of an economy and is an important engine of overall economic health of the city. The ruling Catalan government it clearly wants the airport to be expanded although many challenges stand in the way.

It’s not just the passenger load that becomes more complicated once an airport expands, it also means that a staff strike can lead to greater overall chaos since the airport and the many different groups involved in the successful running of the airport (airlines, ground crew, airport staff, security staff etc) have been engaged in industrial action over the summer in recent years.

Will the airport end up expanding? Or will its expansion plans turn to nought? Will expansion bring with it more growth? Or will it bring more woe?

Watch this space.



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