Airport to Nowhere: Spain’s Costly No-Fly Zone

February 21, 2012


While having some of the wobbliest finances in Europe, here’s how a Spanish county built an airport nobody — except one lucky politician — wanted.

Six hundred thousand dollars is a lot to spend for eight ferrets. Administrators at Spain’s Castellón Airport announced the establishment of the ferret contract late last year. The job had been awarded to an animal handler, to control birds and rabbits that might endanger aircraft. The contract will pay the ferret wrangler 450,000 euros, or a little over $600,000. The money buys the weasels, plus a team of falcons, that will work six hours a day.

The contract was to start as soon as planes start landing at the airport, which its operators predicted, at the time, would happen this April. In December, the airport’s operators announced the ferrets would be showing up early, in January, to control a plague of rabbits that could “bite cables.” The ferrets will have three months to clear the area before the opening, which, if it happens, would finally come after 15 years of planning and delays.

It’s a big if. By December, officials in Castellón, a region of orange groves and long beaches near the city of Valencia on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, had not yet received permission from Spain’s central government in Madrid to take off and land large passenger jets in the area. And the airport’s director had made a public appeal to the local government for more funds — to offer incentives to airlines. Because, four months before opening day, not one airline had signed a deal to operate flights to Castellón.

Just a few months before the scheduled start of operations, and more than a decade after the plan’s conception, few in the little region of Castellón had demonstrated interest in having a local airport.

Who had? Ask that in Castellón, and one name comes up: a local politician named Carlos Fabra. Fabra, 66, is the latest patriarch in a line going back centuries in Castellón. A leader of the local Populist Party — the same center-right party that won Spain’s national elections in November — he had first assumed leadership of the local legislature in 1995. It was a position his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and various uncles had held on and off since the 19th century. Fabra soon announced a legacy project: an airport for Castellón.

“In 1997, Castellón’s unemployment rate was technically zero. You used to read about it in the paper,” said Pedro Barba Lujan, a lifelong Castellón resident who runs a travel agency, GiraMondo, in the county seat of Castello de la Plana, a sunny town full of classical architecture. “It was a different era. The airport was to bring people to Castellón and spend money. They built a lot of hotels and [a resort called] Marina d’Or. They were planning an amusement park.”

The airport project would in theory bring the tourists directly to Castellón’s door. In 2003, the Spanish government refused to aid Fabra’s project with federal money, so airport backers decided to go semi-private — a first for Spain at the time. The proposal went before the local legislature, which Fabra led, and to a larger regional body in Valencia. The political wheels took years to grind, but the process inched forward. The next year construction crews were able to break ground — with backing from the equivalent of the state and county governments, an investment from Banco Santander, one of Spain’s largest banks, and FCC, the country’s largest construction company.

An airport was built over the next five years, at a cost of nearly $200 million (including the ferret bill). Today it sits, quiet, in a patch of olive-farming land, amid some pretty hills overlooking the Mediterranean shore. But today Castellón is a different place than it was in the late ’90s. The province now has more than 20 percent unemployment. And though back then, backers had convinced local governments and businesses to build the airport, they had not convinced the rest of the world it was necessary.

I visited Castellón late last fall to ask its airport operators, politicians, and residents one question: was a 15-year effort to build an airport without planes a case of epically bad public administration, or had it crossed the line into corruption? I wanted to understand what, at bottom, was causing the European financial crisis, much of which is hitting hardest along the continent’s southern coast. Could identifying the line between fecklessness and graft in one lovely Mediterranean valley help explain why this nation — among others — now faces insolvency?

Few inside Spain call the country “too big to fail.” Rather, they say it already has. The Iberian nation of 46 million is the Eurozone’s fourth-largest economy, after Germany, France, and Italy. But it has the European Union’s highest youth unemployment rate — at the new year, a shocking 49.3 percent.

For all adults, el paro, as unemployment is called in Spain, was more than 22 percent in January. The government long ago ran out of money, leading to a round of cuts last year for services including hospitals and schools. That sparked national protests by groups of tens of thousands of Spaniards who called themselves indignados, or “indignants,” who occupied plazas across the country for nearly two months — long before American protesters occupied Wall Street.

It had been a long time coming. As far back as 2008, it was common to hear the country named among Europe’s “P.I.G.S.,” a banker’s epithet for Europe’s problem children: Portugal, Ireland,  Greece, and Spain.

“I believe that the basis for economic recovery, and the foundations of a new stage of growth in Spain have been laid,” then-Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said during an emergency press conference back in July. It turned out to be wishful thinking. Widespread disapproval of Zapatero’s handling of the crisis led him to call early elections that same summer day. And last November, Spanish voters threw the leader of eight years out of office by a huge margin, handing his center-left Democratic Socialist party its worst defeat in 30 years. Spain has only been a democracy for 35 years.

The party that took over, the center-right Partido Popular, or Populist Party (PP), warned of an austerity program: hard choices to get the country back on its feet. “Austerity is not enough; reforms are needed for growth,” the incoming prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, promised in his victory speech…

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