Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ranks of 'ghost airports' grow as Spain’s economic boom dissipates

MADRID (AFP) — Built during a boom and now deserted, Spain's growing ranks of ''ghost airports'' may not be the international air hubs their creators dreamed of – but they are still burning up cash.

When Badajoz airport, near the Portuguese border in western Spain, saw its last commercial flight take off at 8:05 a.m. on Tuesday morning, it became just the latest of many eerie signs of the country's sharp reversal of fortune.

Among them is the private airport in the eastern city of Castellon, still deserted after opening in March last year. Critics complain it pays for staff and even pest control – all it lacks are flights and passengers.

''At the time the airport was a reasonable idea because it was linked to a broader tourism promotion project,'' says Eva Martinez, a member of the regional parliament from the opposition Socialist Party.

But the airport turned out to be too much. ''The nearest airport, in Valencia, is barely 50 kilometers (30 miles) away,'' Martinez says.

Now Castellon and the highly indebted Valencia region, which has begun raising taxes and cutting spending on services such as healthcare, is haunted by the costs of the ghost site.

''It wouldn't have mattered if the airport had stayed as just an idea,'' says Martinez.

''The problem is that it is built now,'' she adds, detailing the 7.2 million-euro budget a ghost airport runs, which must be paid for ''even when it is not functioning''.

This includes 424,000 euros to pay seven staff and 90,000 euros a year for falcons and ferrets, used by airports to keep birds and rabbits away from the planes and runways.

On top of all this is 30 million euros spent on advertising.

''It is an absolute scandal that in the economic situation we are in, with the Valencia region in ruin, we continue to spend money on this airport,'' Martinez says.

Spain, where economic growth was driven for years by a building bubble that burst in 2008, has more international airports for commercial flights than any other country in Europe: 48 public and two private.

Four of the public ones now find themselves with no regular commercial flights.

At Badajoz, the carrier Air Nostrum, owned by Iberia, announced in November that it was abandoning the airport ''due to the sharp fall in reservations'' in ''the economic crisis that has affected the Spanish domestic market''.

Badajoz was built in 1990 but was hard hit by the economic slump from 2008.

In 2011, just over 56,000 passengers used Badajoz, 8.3 percent fewer than in the previous year, according to figures from airports agency AENA.

It had logged a record of 75,000 passengers in 2007, the year before the worst of the financial and economic crisis struck. In 2010 it started work to double the size of its terminal, car parks and runways.

The ghost sites appear a paradox in a country whose public airports overall received 204 million passengers in 2011 – described by AENA as the second best results in their history.

The first of the two private airports, in Ciudad Real, south of Madrid, opened in 2008 and may close now following its last flight by budget airline Vueling in October.

Apart from these, ''airports that have less than 100,000 passengers a year, that is less that one flight a day, are really ghost airports too,'' says Germa Bel, an economist at Barcelona University.

''In Spain, there are some 15 airports like this,'' adds Bel.

''There is certainly going to be a lot of debate about what to do with them. It is quite annoying to close an operating theatre in a hospital and keep open an airport with 30 or 40 people working there and no planes landing.''


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