Yes to a new El Prat, but at what price?

Andrei Boar
Professor of the Dept. Finance, Accounting and Control
Expert in mobility and infrastructure

Although it is true that Barcelona airport has suffered a reduction of about 90% of its passengers as a result of covid-19 , before the start of the pandemic the capacity of its terminals was close to 95% occupancy. It had been anticipated for a long time that the airport would soon be saturated and, for this reason, the expansion of the infrastructure was requested with the aim of turning it into an international hub. In other words, in a hub from where airlines could manage most of their long-distance operations. Some of the most important hubs in the world are already found in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, Istanbul or Frankfurt.

The agreement for the expansion has finally arrived in August 2021, with a planned budget of 1,700 million euros for the work, which consists in expanding one of the tracks by 500 meters, building a satellite terminal and connecting with the high-speed trains the airports of Reus, Girona and Barcelona.

Before the pandemic, the capacity of the El Prat terminals was close to 95% occupancy and the airport was already expected to be saturated

The expansion of the take-off runway should allow larger and more capable aircrafts to add more operations to the airport, since it is currently limited by the conditions and the layout of the runways. In addition, to achieve the category of international hub, the connection works between T1 and T2 and with the new terminal must be accelerated - if it ends up being built. However, you have to choose between expanding El Prat or opting for its connection with the satellite airports of Reus and Girona.

Economic impact

The expansion of El Prat will improve the Catalan business ecosystem , will open the doors to more internationalization options and will increase investment opportunities . The work is not only designed for passengers, but also to improve merchandise trade. According to a study by the University of Barcelona, ​​the expansion would translate into 80,000 new direct jobs, 315,000 indirect jobs and an increase in Catalan GDP of 9%.

Environmental impact

At the same time, the works in El Prat will have a negative impact on the environment , since it implies destroying part of La Ricarda and, as a consequence, increasing the environmental and acoustic pollution. When we refer to La Ricarda we are talking about the protected area between the Delta del Llobregat and the current airstrips, made up of lagoons and mainly inhabited by flamingos and other species of birds.

Although this area is protected by the Natura 2000 network, only with the arguments in favor of the Generalitat de Catalunya and the European Commission could the enlargement be carried out. Faced with this dilemma, AENA proposes to build up to 10 times more protected area on the other side of the airport that would be affected.

A 500 passenger airliner consumes about 1,200 liters of fuel per 100 km. For example, a BCN-NY flight consumes about 70,000 liters of fuel.

The increase in environmental pollution must also be considered. For reference, a 500 passenger airliner consumes about 1,200 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers with its corresponding emissions. For example, a flight from Barcelona to New York consumes about 70,000 liters of fuel.

In this context, noise pollution also comes into play, since the alternative to the expansion towards La Ricarda would be in a southerly direction and would affect, in addition to another protected area, the residents of the towns of Castelldefels and Gavà.

A new model of aviation

But the real problem of aviation is in the system itself. Although the pandemic has shown that it is not necessary to travel as we did before, it is already estimated that in 2024 the air traffic that existed before the health crisis will recover. At a time when all mobility infrastructures are facing climate change, aviation cannot be immune to it and it is essential that it be transformed to offer more efficient and less polluting aircraft. In this sense, they are already working on a prototype that reduces fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 80%. This model plans to revolutionize aviation as we knew it until now.

The real problem of aviation is in the same system, since it is estimated that in 2024 air traffic will recover before the health crisis

The expansion of the El Prat airport, however, must be seen as a strategy for the country model that we want to have in the coming years. On the one hand, the works would allow to continue betting on tourism from a wider radius than the current one and would facilitate the options of coming to Barcelona. It would also improve the business network trade internationally. On the other hand, although it is necessary, the expansion has an enormous challenge: to minimize the environmental impact that it will generate in its surroundings. The Generalitat will play an essential role in the project, since without its approval La Ricarda will not be affected.

ODS article Andrei