Photo by Rafa Rayes Lopez
Winging itWinging it - December 07
An article from December 2007 writes about the new airport expansion. Sit on a Barcelona beach any afternoon and look out to sea. Above the horizon will be an airplane, heading south. Behind it, another. All day, and far into the night, they cross the sky, bringing a constant stream of tourists, businessmen and other travellers in to land at the airport of El Prat.
The airport is crucial to Barcelona’s economy. In 2006, over 30 million passengers used it to enter, leave or pass through the city. This is a sharp increase on the 20 million who used it in 2000. The airport is currently stretched to capacity, and at peak times is close to collapse, with scrum-like conditions in check-in halls, delays on evening flights and long waits for luggage.
To meet the mounting demand, El Prat airport is growing, too. A third runway was opened in 2004, and a huge tract of land—bigger than 80 football pitches—on the other side of the runways is filled with cranes and cement mixers, busy building the new Terminal Sur. Designed by local architect Ricardo Bofill, the €850 million complex will boost the airport’s capacity to 55 million passengers a year. The hope is that one day El Prat will be a major European transport hub, much like London’s Heathrow and Amsterdam’s Schipol.
The new terminal will be colossal. It will have over 180 check-in desks, 60 plane spaces, and vast retail and bag collection areas. Offices, aircraft maintenance spaces and baggage handling zones mean that the ‘backstage’ area is even larger.
No routes have been confirmed yet, but the terminal will be used by members of the Oneworld Alliance (such as American Airlines, British Airways and Iberia) as well as low-cost airline Vueling, among others. There will also be a space dedicated to shuttle flights to Madrid. The present Terminal A will be assigned to Sky Team members (including KLM, Air France and Delta), while Terminals B and C will be dedicated to short-haul flights and budget airlines. At present, El Prat is overwhelmingly used for short flights, particularly on low-cost airlines, with only a handful of routes serving destinations outside Europe.
Increasing numbers of passengers will be transferring between flights, but AENA spokesman Agustín Rodríguez said that complicated transfers will be minimised. “The terminals will be connected by a bus service, but the design of the new terminal means that only a very low percentage of passengers will need to travel between terminals. This is the same system that they use in big airports like London or Amsterdam.”
The project’s progress not been entirely smooth: in 2003 it was being reported that the new terminal would be up and running by 2007, with estimated construction costs of less than €500 million. “Of course, four years later when the work was started, the approximate estimate was inexact,” said Rodríguez.
The Terminal Sur’s green credentials have been eagerly touted by AENA, who emphasise its solar water heating system and its low-energy design. However, environmental groups have savaged the airport’s expansion, claiming that some of the land occupied by the third runway and Terminal Sur was formerly an important wetland habitat. José García is the Delta de Llobregat representative of DEPANA, an environmental pressure group. “We’ve always been very critical of the airport’s expansion,” he said. “It’s led to the disappearance of 20 to 25 percent of the Delta’s wetland areas, some of which were extremely important. Those areas didn’t have official protection, but they should have had, according to the EU criteria.”
When the third runway and Terminal Sur were still in the planning stage, DEPANA made suggestions to limit the environmental impact, and Garcia expressed his frustration that they were not incorporated into the final plans. Agustín Rodríguez said that these suggestions had been considered: “There was a study into the environmental impact back in 2000, which examined all of these concerns, and a commission was set up to ensure that all of the works do the least damage possible. This commission includes representatives of all the local town halls, the Generalitat, the State, and AENA. Any action that we take has to have the OK of all of them.”
Others are even more bitterly opposed to the airport’s expansion. The residents of Castelldefels and Gavà Mar, which lie directly to the south of the airport, have spent years battling the new third runway, and are now fighting the Terminal Sur.
Between 2004 and 2006, planes taking off from the third runway flew directly over the two municipalities, although in late 2006, following a series of protests by residents and formal complaints from the mayors of a number of local towns including Gavà, Sitges, Castelldefels, El Prat, Sant Boi and Viladecans, changes were made to reduce the noise. The airport switched from using integrated runways, where planes could both land and take off from any of the strips, to using segregated runways, where each strip is used only for landing or only for takeoff.
The residents fear that the Terminal Sur will increase the noise levels in their homes again. Elisabet Martínez is the president of the Gavà Mar residents’ association. “When they started using the third runway, the noise increased a lot. There’s a common feeling around here that they’ve done it all very badly. If they carried out the expansion as they wanted to [using integrated runways], it’d be impossible to live anywhere between El Prat and Sitges; it’d be horrific. We need segregated runways to allow us to live alongside the infrastructure.
“At the moment there’s around one plane a minute passing over our homes, from 7am until 11pm. With integrated runways there’d be 90 flights an hour, but with segregated runways it’d be between 84 and 86. It doesn’t sound like much, but over the course of a year it’s a big difference.”
AENA’s spokesperson praised the solution to the noise problem. “With the segregated runways, we’ve reached an agreement that everyone is happy with,” said Agustín Rodríguez. However, the commitment to use segregated runways expires in 2012. What happens after that is unclear.
One recent incident near Madrid underlines the seriousness of residents’ concerns. In early October, less than two years after the €6.2 billion new terminal at Barajas airport was completed, a whole village had to be relocated at AENA’s expense—noise from the new runways was that bad. AENA had to pay an estimated €6.6 million for the 200 residents of Las Castellenas to move into new flats, and local mayors say that over 700,000 others are affected by the noise.
Elisabet Martínez’s explanation for the problems facing the airport is simple, but does not hold out much hope for an imminent solution. “Most other European cities have airports that are miles out from the city centre; the problem with El Prat is that it’s just too close to the city.”
• The Terminal Sur will take up an area bigger than 80 football pitches.
• Completion is scheduled for 2009.
• The new terminal is expected to cost €850 million, while the entire airport expansion plan is costing €3 billion.
• The Terminal Sur will have its own road, train, bus and taxi connections, meaning that many travellers will avoid the current terminal entirely.
• It will be able to handle 25 million passengers a year—up to 8,500 per hour.