The Spanish and Catalan governments have agreed a controversial plan to expand Barcelona airport that would increase passenger numbers from 55 million to 70 million a year.
The €1.7bn plan, funded by Aena, the Spanish airports authority, is opposed by Barcelona city council. It will have to be approved by the European Commission, which has already condemned an earlier expansion carried out in the protected wetlands of the Llobregat delta.
The city council earlier condemned the proposal as “a bacchanalia of sectors stuck in the past”.
Announcing the agreement, Raquel Sánchez, the transport minister, said the expansion would be executed with “maximum respect for the environment” and would promote “sustainable and quality tourism”. Work is expected to be completed by 2030.
Pere Aragonés, the Catalan regional president, claimed it was essential for the plan to go ahead if Barcelona was not going to “miss the train to the future”.
Barcelona council, meanwhile, wants all journeys of less than 2.5 hours to be made by train.
Much of the Llobregat delta is protected under the European Union’s Nature Network 2000 scheme. The plan envisages extending a runway into the protected zone of La Ricarda, as well as building a third terminal.
In May, the European Commission sent a letter to the Spanish and Catalan governments in which it complained that “the adoption and implementation of a special plan for the protection of the natural areas and landscape of Llobregat delta, and an extension of the special protected area to protect the most suitable territories for the conservation of birds, have not been followed up sufficiently”.
José García, vice-president of the environmental NGO Depana, said the plan ran contra to the Spanish and Catalan governments’ policies on sustainable development.
“A lot of this is posturing so that everyone can say they came out a winner,” he said, pointing out that the agreement emerged from the first in a series meetings aimed at defusing the Catalan conflict.
He compared the agreement to getting planning permission for a house you cannot afford to build. The reality, he said, is that the travel business, on which Spain’s is heavily dependent, is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels soon, or perhaps ever, and that Aena is not in a position to find €1.7bn.
“It’s like the emperor’s clothes,” García said. “No one is prepared to admit the truth.”
Elena Mayoral, Aena’s head of airport planning, said in a written reply that international air transport organisations expect “the recovery of traffic to pre-pandemic levels will occur between 2025 and 2026, when the expansion works will begin”.
Asked why a city with a population of 1.6 million needs an airport that can carry 70 million passengers, she said: “The large number of European destinations at the airport makes it the home for intercontinental connections. The largest hub in Europe is in a city with a population of around 800,000 people: Amsterdam. The vast majority of connecting passengers, 70%, come from outside the Iberian peninsula.’
Critics point out that, aside from the environmental impact of the proposed expansion, Catalonia already has three underused airports in Girona, Reus and Lleida.