Don Quixote's phantom airport
No one is prepared to take the blame for building a 1.1-billion-euro facility in Ciudad Real that is now without flights after two years of losses
The last flight out of Ciudad Real departed on October 29, to all intents and purposes leaving the privately built airport empty. That was the day low-cost carrier Vueling ? the last company operating from there and no longer being subsidized by the regional government ? pulled out.
It would be an understatement to say that there was not much demand at the airport: over the last year there were just four flights a week out of a terminal that cost 1.1 billion euros to build.
After operating for less than two years, the aptly named Don Quijote airport is now filing for bankruptcy with more than 300 million euros in debts. The project was financed by two savings banks taken over by the Bank of Spain earlier this year due to mismanagement: Caja Sur and Caja Castilla-La Mancha.
The airport has a single 4.2-kilometer runway, which, along with air facilities in Málaga and Madrid, is the only one in Spain where the new Airbus 380, the world's largest passenger plane, can land. It also has a capacity to handle 10 million passengers a year, even though last year it received just 55,000 passengers.
Ciudad Real is just one hour away from Madrid on the AVE high-speed train line. A link to the airport was planned, and part of that connection to the would-be station remains: a monument to unfulfilled ambitions.
A bus service turned out to be more than sufficient. It used to operate twice an hour to Ciudad Real and Puertollano, but once Ryanair and Air Berlin pulled out, the service was reduced to coincide with the twice-a-week flights.
"Didn't anybody in a city of 72,000 people ask themselves whether this project was really viable?" asks local journalist Carlos Otto. At the same time he admits that nobody seriously questioned the grand blueprint.
"Very few of us opposed it. Nobody wanted to say anything because if you did you were accused of going against the interests of the city. The only people who stood up to be counted were the environmentalists, but many of them have come under pressure and the newspapers no longer talk to them," he adds.
Felipe Pérez, the head of labor union CC OO in Ciudad Real, also admits that few people had the courage or foresight to ask if the city needed an airport. "But when you are told that it would create up to 20,000 jobs, how could we say no?"
At the same time, Pérez says the project was about a few well-placed local businessmen making a killing from land that was re-zoned. "The owners of the construction company envisioned this as a cargo airport. They hoped to make money selling off land to build warehouses. But the environmentalists spoiled the whole thing, and so they had to change their plans," he says.
Rosa Romero, the city's Popular Party (PP) mayor, denies any responsibility and insists that no public money went into the project. "It was a private investment, we had nothing to do with it," the mayor says.
José María Barreda, who was booted out as head of the regional government of Castilla-La Mancha following the May regional elections, but who will likely take up a Socialist Party seat in Congress after the November general elections, also insists that there was little the regional government could do to prevent the airport plan from going ahead.
But the fact of the matter is that a great deal of public money went into this white elephant indirectly. For example, the CCM savings bank pumped 100 million euros into the project and got a 35-percent stake in it. The bank's board was made up of members appointed by the Socialist Party and the Popular Party. The CCM also lent money to private investors involved in the airport, boosting its stake by a further 25 percent.
Nevertheless, there are still those who believe that the airport has a future. Among them is Domingo Díaz de Mera, the owner of one of the construction companies involved. "The idea was to build a huge cargo and logistics base, but then the financial crisis hit. I have lost something like 17 million euros in this. But that is behind us." He believes that when the Spanish airport authority AENA is privatized in a couple of years time "there will be a lot of interest in Ciudad Real."
In turn Juan Antonio León Treviño, who owns a construction firm and is the former president of the Ciudad Real Chamber of Commerce, blames the government in Madrid. "The idea came from the Economy Ministry under the Popular Party, back in the late 1990s. We carried out extensive studies and it was believed that a cargo terminal here would help with exports. We got a lot of help from the Public Works Ministry at the time," he says, adding that he has lost eight million euros, and that the regional government of Castilla-La Mancha put no money into the project.
Low-cost carrier Ryanair will not be operating any flights at Reus airport for five months beginning on November 6, leaving close to 300 people without work, labor union sources at the air facility said on Monday.
With Ryanair's temporary departure, the Reus airport in Tarragona will no longer have any commercial arrivals or departures.
The Spanish airport authority AENA says it is negotiating with 13 other carriers to fill the gap. Ryanair has said that it will suspended its operations for the winter season if the carrier doesn't receive a hike in the more than 3.5 million euros in government subsidies it receives each year.
An estimated 75,000 passengers relied on Ryanair's Reus route to get to the Costa Dorada. AENA contract negotiations, according to sources, are centered on talks with a Russian airline that is interested in the air route to fly in tourists.
Some 88 Ryanair workers will be left without a job but union sources believe it will be more than three times as much counting the indirect jobs.
Lluís Recoder, Tarragona's commissioner for sustainable economy and land administration, criticized AENA for not doing more to keep Ryanair from cutting back its services not only in Reus but also in Girona and Lleida.