Financial Woes Keep Spanish Airport Grounded

Mar 4, 2012
Originally published on March 4, 2012 11:00 am

Spanish politicians spent $220 million on the sparkling new Castellon airport on Spain's Mediterranean coast — $40 million alone was spent on TV ads and other marketing. They also paid $600,000 for ferrets and falcons to kill birds that endanger aircraft.

Yet no plane has yet taken off. Construction, which began in 2004, went over budget, partly to fund a 75-foot statue of a local politician out front.

The project in Valencia — Spain's most indebted region — ran out of money before any deals with airlines were signed. Though the airport held a "grand opening" last year, the terminal still hasn't seen a single passenger.

To reach the empty airport, you have to take a train, then a bus, then walk along a dirt path through orange groves. Construction of the airport road was never completed. There are already three other airports within a drive of an hour or so.

Bus driver Luis Garcia does a once-a-day route that passes by the empty airport. He himself has never been on a plane.

"These are small towns. We no longer have much agriculture or industry. An airport could've brought us some life," he says, "so the idea was a good one. The thing is, it's got to function. And right now this airport isn't doing anything."

Built During A Construction Boom

For many, this airport is an embarrassing relic from the construction boom, when regional leaders seemed to have more money than they knew what to do with.

Juan Jose Toribio, an economist who teaches at IESE Business School's campus in Madrid, says Spain's system of devolved powers sometimes let regions spend wantonly.

"But they don't have any responsibility for taxing. So the central government was in charge of collecting taxes and transferring that to the regional governments, which were free to spend as they liked," Toribio says. "So regional politicians didn't feel the pressure of the taxpayers, in spending whatever they wanted."

Such spending — mixed with local corruption — has bankrupted much of Spain. The airport director collects a salary higher than the prime minister. The latest revelation is that the runway was built too narrow and needs to be dug up.

Pressure From The EU

Jobless residents in the area aren't the only ones angry. EU leaders in Brussels are pretty upset, too. Spain is still overspending by almost triple what EU rules allow.

Toribio, the economist, says the Spanish government is feeling the heat on both sides — from Brussels, but also from its own regions, which are still asking for more money. The regions went overboard on projects like the Castellon airport, but they also pay for necessities.

"They feel the pressure of the European Commission very much, and the pressure from the regional governments, since regional governments are responsible for expending on, say, health and education. And they know people don't want to have those expenditures cut off," he says.

Back at the empty airport, a cement wall topped with barbed wire keeps job seekers away. It's covered with profane graffiti.

Airport officials are begging the government for just a few more dollars, to redo the runway and lure airlines to land there. So far no license has been granted, and Katarina Tobea — an unemployed 30-year-old who lives nearby — says she's not holding her breath.

"They would like to see it as a symbol of progress, but I don't think we can talk about progress at this time," she says.

So for now, this empty airport remains an eerie memorial to the days when money flowed more freely in Spain.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

To Spain now, a country struggling to emerge from the European debt crisis. This past week, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said his government will not be able to close a huge financial gap in order to meet a new European Union budget treaty. He made the announcement right after the conclusion of an EU summit, where European leaders set strict new rules on debts and deficits.

Spain is a country littered with so-called white elephants. These are public infrastructure projects left over from the boom years. Just maintaining all the buildings is actually bankrupting some towns. Lauren Frayer traveled to Spain's most indebted region, Valencia, to check out how local leaders there spent public money - and what they have to show for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV ADVERTISEMENT)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Politicians spent $220 million on the sparkling new Castellon Airport on Spain's Mediterranean coast. Forty million alone was on marketing, TV ads like that one. They also paid $600,000 for ferrets and falcons to kill birds that endanger aircraft. Thing is, no aircraft are taking off. Construction went over-budget, partly to fund a 75-foot statue of a local politician out front. They ran out of money before they could sign deals with airlines. The terminal hasn't seen a single passenger.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE AND FOOTSTEPS)

FRAYER: To reach the empty airport, you first have to take a train, then a bus, then walk along a dirt path through orange groves. They never finished the airport road, and there are already three other airports within an hour or so's drive anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION IN SPANISH)

FRAYER: Bus driver Luis Garcia does a once-a-day rural route that passes by the empty airport. He himself has never been on a plane.

LUIS GARCIA: (Through Translator) These are small towns. We no longer have much agriculture or industry. An airport could have brought us some life, he says. So the idea was a good one. The thing is, it's got a function, and right now this airport isn't doing anything.

FRAYER: For many, this airport is an embarrassing relic from the construction boom when regional leaders seemed to have more money than they knew what to do with. Juan Jose Toribio, an economist at IESE Business School says Spain's system of devolved powers let regions spend - sometimes wantonly.

JUAN JOSE TORIBIO: But they don't have any responsibility for taxing, so central government was in charge of collecting taxes and transferring that to the regional governments, which were free to just spend as they liked. So regional politicians didn't feel the pressure of the taxpayers.

FRAYER: Such spending, mixed with local corruption, has bankrupted much of Spain. Even though the airport is not in service, its director collects a salary higher than Spain's prime minister. The latest revelation is that the runway was built too narrow and needs to be dug up. Jobless locals are angry and so are EU leaders in Brussels. Spain is still overspending by almost triple what EU rules allow. Toribio, the economist, says the Spanish government is feeling the heat from both sides; from Brussels, but also from its own regions, which are still asking for more money. Sure, the regions went overboard on projects like the Castellon Airport, but they also pay for necessities.

TORIBIO: They feel the pressure of the European Commission very much. And the pressure of the regional governments, since regional governments are responsible for spending on, say, health and education. And they know people don't want to have those expenditures cut off.

FRAYER: Back at the empty airport, a cement wall topped with barbed wire keeps jobseekers away. It's covered with profane graffiti though. Airport officials are begging the government for just a few more dollars to redo the runway and lure airlines to land here. So far no license has been granted though. Katarina Tobea, who lives nearby and is out of work says she's not holding her breath.

KATARINA TOBEA: They would like to see it as a symbol of progress, but I don't think we can think of progress at this time.

FRAYER: So for now, this empty airport remains an eerie memorial to Spain's better days. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE AND MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.