Another airport without airplanes
by Fuster and Associates
Murcia guaranteed 200 million euro private airfield completed a year ago with no flights
Antonio Sanchez Hernandez applies the crushing logic of the countryside. “I expect they’ll open it just to close it again afterwards,” he says while pointing to what the signs call “Murcia Region International Airport”. Antonio, a 72 year-old retired marble sculptor and spare-time farmer, is watering his half acre of land to try and save the harvest.
The airport he points at on the other side of the road is a grey building with stainless steel panels. It is attractive and they say it has won design awards. It is not possible to go inside, only to look at the grasses appearing between the runway, the empty car park, the unused control tower. Not one commercial flight has landed here, among the almond and fruit trees, despite the fact that building work on the installation, which cost 266 million euros, finished a year ago. Now Corvera airport can be added to the list of shame, of airports without aeroplanes (Castellon, Cuidad Real, Huesca, etc.), although with less publicity and without ever having been opened.
Murcia was going to be Florida. Or better still, California. In the bubble, resorts (thousands of homes and golf courses) proliferated near the coast in order to attract the British. The regional government, run by the Partido Popular (conservative People’s Party), joined the party. Money did not seem to be a problem. This is how the toll road from Cartegena to Vera, which travels along 100 km of almost virgin coastline to service future housing developments, was built. Next it was going to be Marina de Cope, a mega-complex in a natural park. The icing on the cake was a private airport that would attract hords of tourists. The large airport at Alicante, 75 miles away from Murcia, was not enough for regional president Ramon Luis Valcarcel. Nor was partial use of the San Javier militar y base in Murcia.
This is why, in 2006, he awarded construction of the new airport to a consortium headed by Sacyr. “It is unique because it hasn’t cost a single euro of public money and is owned by the community,” explains Antonio Sanchez-Solis, Director-General for Transport, from his office. There is a large model of the airport at the entrance to the Regional Ministry, and another opposite the minister’s office.
In 2008, when work started, it quickly because obvious that nothing was going as planned.
“Then bank financing collapsed and the concession holder found itself in difficulties; negotiation with financial institutions was blocked and the autonomous community logically provided the concession holder with help by guaranteeing it. This doesn’t mean any money has been spent,” explains Sanchez-Solis.
‘Help’ was a 200 million euro guarantee from the community for the project. It was introduced by the PP in an amendment to the 2010 budget, thereb y linking its fate to that of the works. If the commission holder goes bankrupt, the banks (Caixabanc, Espirito Santo, Caixa de Tarragona, Caja Segovia, Cajasol, the ICO and Caja de Tarragona) will demand 200 million euros from a community that is in debt and that, in 2012, had to ask for 527 million euros from the Fondo de Liquidez Autonomica (Regional Liquidity Mechanism).
“This was the moment when the project should have been dropped and everything would’ve been fine, but Valcarcel insisted on going on,” explains a source close to the plan who has requested anonymity.
With the guarantee from the community, credit flowed and work began to pick up pace. It finished a year ago, according to project sources, but there was no tape-cutting or cava. The image of the Castellon and Ciudad Real fiascos hang over Murcia. No politician will open it without an aeroplane.
“It is at the stage of being equipped and still needs some authorization”, clarifies the he ad of transport in the region, who does not offer an opening date: “It would be imprudent”.
The newspaper library is full of adverts publicising the imminent opening of the airport.
The main problem is that, 20 miles away, the Ministry of Public Works has just invested 70 million euros in improvements to San Javier airport. AENA, the company in charge of managing the civil area of San Javier, built a new terminal, runway and control tower between 2004 and 2011. And it is demanding payment from the community or the new airport. “Neither the community nor the commission holder have the money. What they could do is transfer these assets to the Ministry of Defence”, explains a project source.
It is a wretched situation: a new 266 million euro airport is demanding the closure of a second, public airport that is 20 miles away and has just spent 70 million euros that no one can repay.
“Valcarcel insisted on having his airport when he knew that AENA was i nvesting in San Javier. He said that triple the number of tourists would come, but there’s been nothing,” criticises Begoña Garcia Retegui, Socialist spokeswoman. In Murcia, grievances are held against Alicante.
“Murcia has traditionally been severely penalised in terms of communication networks. The Mediterranean motorway stopped in Alicante, until recently there was no dual carriageway route to Madrid and no train connections. And this is a tourism region,” alleges Sanchez-Solis. The Government of Murcia insists that it will not be another airport without aeroplanes. Valcarcel has said the airfield is not for “taking a stroll”, in allusion to Castellon airport, built “for the greater glory of the father for his little girl” (an accusation against Carlos Fabra and his daughter Andrea).
Despite the fact that the community claims everything is in hand and there is no risk to the guarantee, months go by and shareholders are getting restless. Together with Sacyr (wh ich was headed by Luis del Rivero, from Murcia, when work started), Murcian businesses (El Pozo and Cementos Cruz), banks (CAM and Caja Murcia) and real estate companies (Montoro e Hijos and Inprisma) have a share in the capital. Each has a share of approximately 6%, but some are beginning to tire of paying interest without being given an opening date.
Montoro e Hijos has already asked to withdraw from the shareholders, according to the company.
Even if AENA agrees to close San Javier airport, there will still be dark clouds ahead. The numbers used to start the business are now more than questionable: passenger traffic at San Javier has decreased from two million in 2007 to 1.2 million in 2012. Even if Corvera absorbed all of the traffic from San Javier, it would still not reach 5.2 million passengers by 2015 as predicted in the contract. “If it opens, it will instantly need state aid, just like the toll roads. Also, the public airport will have been closed,” expl ains a behind-the-scenes source in the operation. The concession holder has not commented on the situation, although there are people who remember that renegotiating the terms of a concession is usual practice.
Away from the negotiations between Sacyr, AENA and the autonomous community, despondency reigns. Landowners report that they have only been paid a minimal part of the expropriation. Ascension Noguera is among the ninety affected owners. “I’m paying a mortgage on the lemon grove land that I bought full of hope, and now there’s nothing.” At least, she says, she worked on building the airport. She is waiting for staff training courses, but they are delayed again and again.
Farmer Antonio Sanchez turns and looks around him, recognizing that, “There isn’t a penny. The money’s gone. There are 1,500 houses in this resort and 20 families live there. The foreigners got tired of being cheated.” He smiles as he speaks, deliberately and without bitterness, but each sentence is a sledgehammer blow. “There was no need for the airport, they all got it wrong. What should have been done in thirty years, we did in less than ten. My daughter is a teacher, and at her school there isn’t even enough fuel for the heating. The only aeroplane I’ll see here is this pivot.” And he points to the tubes in the aerial watering system running above his head.
The Cartagena to Vera motorway has entered into an arrangement with creditors and the law that gave permission for the Marina de Cope mega-complex to be built in a nature reserve has been repealed by the Constitutional Court.
Will the airport be saved from the curse of Murcia’s overambitious plans?
This article was first produced by Fuster and Associates
Fuster and Associates
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