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

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

In Castellón, though, the words carried some irony: it was a PP stronghold, having held the presidency of the local provincial legislature for decades. Where would an empty $200 million airport, throwing six-figure contracts at bird and rabbit exterminators, fit into austerity?

The airport itself sits between two olive groves, a half hour from the Mediterranean shore. At the end of a curving road, the passenger terminal is a white, two-story rectangle with rib-shaped accents along the roofline. The marriage of tackiness and functionality recalls an IKEA. Inside the glass vestibule where the air traffic controllers will sit, the radar screens and radios and computers were still in boxes in September, and the air conditioning did not work. (Even in fall, a glass box 10 stories in the air is an oven.)

An empty airport is eerie. A cargo hangar was empty of machinery. The debarkation area, despite space for nine jets, had none. The only proof that Castellón Airport was an airport at all came from the tower, runway, and dozens of bright blue road signs that claim so along the nearby highway.

Unlike most airports in Spain, Castellón is run by a private company, Concesiones Aeroportuarias S.A. The company is actually a small consortium anchored by Banco Santander, which had arranged most of the financing for the airport, and FCC, which has done most of the heavy work to build it. Along with a handful of local, finance, and construction interests, Santander and FCC will recoup their investment by taking a percentage of fees that passengers pay to fly there. Someday.

With a private airport, the investors — through their company Concesiones Aeroportuarias SL — could undercut fees charged by nearby airports, which are owned wholly by the local and federal government and subject to stricter regulations. “We charge less,” said Nacho Salom Pérez, Concesiones Aeroportuarias’ chief marketer. The private approach was a competitive strategy.

At the end of October, Salom Pérez had agreed to give me a tour of the airport. He had climbed out of his car a few moments earlier with his arms full of files and notebooks, papers sticking out here and there. He was harried.

“At the end of this year, we have to have this [federal] authorization,” he said (translation from Spanish; Salom Pérez does not speak much English). In order to have planes flying by April 2012, Salom Pérez explained, the airport would need to be cleared by the regulators in Madrid within the next few weeks. Which meant they needed to finish construction, and have an inspector come out.

Once that happened, they could reach deals with interested airlines, which they would need by December. He later amended that to November. (A month later, in mid-December, the airport had yet to announce any deals with airlines.)

That day, Salom Pérez said, most of the airport’s sales team had just jetted off — from nearby Valencia Airport — to a travel industry conference in Berlin, where they would attempt to woo anyone with an airline. By then we had walked inside the empty terminal, and Salom Pérez was showing off the baggage carousel and explaining what would happen at the travel conference: “The airlines sit there, you ask for meetings, and you’ve got 20 minutes to make a few contacts,” he said. The team was in Berlin to make contacts, he said. Eastern Europe was a promising market. Russia. Poland.

Salom Pérez is a likable, sharp, 30-something MBA from Barcelona, with the go-along manner of a professional salesman. But he seemed to realize a bit late that he’d misspoken. Making cold calls at sales conferences a month before his deadline wasn’t a great sign, 15 years into the effort. He claimed they had some deals in the works. He wouldn’t give details.

Salom Pérez headed into the main concourse, a long, white, echoing space. He had been on the project the past seven years, and 2011 had been a tough one: “Ghost Airport of Castellón Spends €5.5 Million on Security Guards,” a local news website, El Confidencial, had worried in August.

“Firm Running Castellón Airport in Default,” said a daily in Valencia, Las Provincias, after the local government announced 22 million euros ($28.7 million) in public funds lost on the airport in 2010, the latest figure available.

“Council Cuts First-Year Passenger Estimate by Half,” said the front page of the region’s main daily, Levante de Castelló, a few days before the Concesiones team left for its last-minute pitch to the airlines in Berlin.

•  •  •

A week before, in late Septemberat a hearing with an increasingly hostile Valencia legislative committee, the airport administration had announced a cut in its projections for the coming year from 600,000 passengers to 300,000, an estimate Salom Pérez confirmed. In theory, the airport would earn money, and pay back its loans, by charging airlines a fee for every passenger who arrives. So a 50 percent cut in passengers would mean a 50 percent cut in income, which in part goes to the government. At 6 euros, or $8, a passenger, which Salom Pérez said was a likely number, the airport had just told the government that over 2 million more bucks had disappeared.

Salom Pérez remained optimistic but vague: “We’re negotiating with Ryanair. ... We’re in a process of pre-closing negotiations.” He strolled through the terminal showing off the porcelain benches, reaching a bit for good news. “The ceramic industry is very important in Castellón,” he said. It would bring business travelers, and that would help convince the airlines, too. And the beaches: Castellón had more than 300 days of sun a year, he said.

He was not able to explain how the airport’s management, of which he was a member, had reached their estimates of the local air travel market — or how, after years of study, they had gotten it wrong by 100 percent in the same week they needed to sell the airport to both the airlines and their own government.

They had come to 600,000, then 300,000, by “looking at similar airports,” he said, without naming any. “Seeing what movement they’ve had. And with that we have expert assessors who circulate in this world, and contacts with the airlines. Our estimates are estimates, but they also go with what we understand from the airlines.”

A spokesman for Ryanair, the Irish discount airline, as well as representatives of two other airlines Salom Pérez later named — a Spanish domestic line called Air Nostrum, and a Hungarian carrier called Wizz Air — would not confirm any discussions with Castellón Airport. Air Nostrum has just pulled out of a similar airport named Ciudad Real that was four hours away, near Madrid, citing lack of passengers.

Back in the early 2000s, the British consulting firm Mott MacDonald had carried out initial studies for Castellón Airport and predicted a potential market of 2 million passengers per year. But the Mott MacDonald spokesperson, reached by phone and email, wouldn’t comment on how it had reached those figures or whether they remain accurate. Despite describing its work for Castellón in detail in its marketing materials, the company took pains to distance itself from its previous work with the project, saying it was a long time ago. “We cannot comment on the performance of the traffic development work undertaken by the developer of the airport or other parties,” a Mott MacDonald spokeswoman, Christina de Burgh-Milne, said by email. Tersely. Twice. (A few weeks after the exchange, all mention of Castellón Airport had disappeared from Mott MacDonald’s website.)

Meanwhile, the economic news worsened. Eighty miles away — about 15 minutes by jet — administrators at a competing Spanish airport, in Reus, had spent the year worried about rumors of its client airlines cutting back flights. Three other airports — one near the coast in Murcia, one in the dusty inland town of Lleida, and one in Giorna, on the French border — were locked in difficult negotiations to keep their own airlines.

•  •  •

Those airports have now become symbolsof Spain’s so-called “white elephant” problem. Across the country, local governments have been flailing. While in the United States, the real estate crash has hit private homeowners hardest, in Spain it was the city governments that gorged themselves, committing to massive projects on the assumption that taxes, like home prices, would always rise. In 2007, the market crashed, and Spain’s cities were buckling under bills for empty swimming pools, shuttered sports facilities, and unpopular vacation complexes that had been promised generous tax assistance. All are too expensive to maintain and too valuable to just knock down.

Castellón Airport proved a special case — but not a unique one. As the crisis deepened, the project emerged in the Spanish media as the most outré example of a toxic mix of real estate speculation and local corruption that was producing embarrassing legal cases across the suffering country. Fabra’s associates were turning up in the most notorious of the cases: a web of influence peddling in nearby Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city, and a longtime PP stronghold.

Fabra himself came under investigation for at least five counts of graft and influence peddling, the largest involving permits to establish a fertilizer factory. After successfully fighting the charges, Fabra learned in December 2011 that the case would be reopened, with prosecutors seeking a 15-year sentence.

His allies were doing no better. Fabra’s closest associate, the local governor, Francisco Camps, faced a long list of charges, and would eventually be forced from office in July 2011. A young, attractive governor, Camps had fought the case — which involved widespread rumors of graft — for years. The only example of corruption that seemed to stick, in the end, involved the payment of more than $16,000 for tailoring of Camps’ suits, by associates of Francisco Correa, who was famous for gifting expensive watches to politicians. Correa was imprisoned on corruption charges in 2009. He, too, had been in contact with Fabra, whose name surfaced in court documents.

The case of the tailored suits had turned out to be just one thread, as it were, in a corruption investigation Spanish prosecutors and the national press had followed for years. Connections between Camps and Correa had been made via a mysterious bagman known as El Bigotes, “The Moustache,” who also, it appeared, had contact with Fabra.

Fabra’s public persona didn’t help. A self-proclaimed addict of the local lottery, he has won jackpots a curious five times since 2004 — most recently the 2011 edition of El Gordo (or The Fat One), a nationally televised lotto that Spaniards follow religiously at Christmastime. A report by La Vanguardia, the daily newspaper in Barcelona, claimed Fabra won more than 2 million euros ($2.5 million) in 2008’s El Gordo. His most recent Christmas winnings were not disclosed, but several Spanish reports claimed he had split a ticket worth $100,000 with a second Castellón official. Despite his luck, Fabra often seemed to be glowering behind dark glasses, which he wears to hide an eye injury from a childhood accident with a pair of scissors.

Meanwhile the airport, Fabra’s obsession, just keeps getting more expensive: take the commission of 300,000 euros ($382,000) for a seven-story bronze statue of Fabra. After a hiccup that included the theft of the statue’s arm by copper thieves, the likeness will be installed in the airport rotunda early this year, said Nacho Salom Pérez.

Custom furniture by Porcelanosa, a local brand of high-end ceramics, continued to arrive at the two-story terminal into late 2011 (in October, most of the benches were pushed against a wall, for construction workers’ post-lunch siestas).

Europe’s only full-body X-ray scanner — the controversial “backscatter” machines — sat waiting on the second floor. Salom Pérez explained: “It’s not required by law, but I like it.” A month later, the EU banned that machine.

•  •  •

Castellón airport, envisioned as a gateway for tourists, is surrounded by other failed projects. Without the beach development, the airport had no reason to exist. But without the airport, the beach developments were harder to reach. Add the financial crisis in 2008, and the result was disaster. Half an hour from the airport is the beachfront development the travel agent had told me about.

Located on a beach visible from the airport highway, the Marina d’Or, or Golden Harbor, resort is one of the largest boom-era developments built in Castellón. It is just over 10 million square meters (the Mall of America is 390,000).

The property, with its tagline “Vacation City,” is a private investment by a land developer named Jesus Ger, who is also a close associate of Carlos Fabra. Ger’s company has sales offices in the Persian Gulf and the U.K., and similar resort developments in Morocco and Ecuador. Ger lives in Castellón, where he sells seafront flats in more than a dozen seven- and eight-story apartment blocks. The apartments were built at about the same time as the airport.

I rented a two-bedroom, two-bath unit, with an en suite kitchen in Marina d’Or for $50 for a night. I spent about an hour walking around the empty resort, and my notes are a list of mixed metaphors: Dubai after the oil’s gone. Vegas after the money’s gone. A cruise ship caught in a storm, run aground, and then reopened, if slightly listing, as a circus.

Anchored by two luxury hotels with more than 600 rooms each, Marina d’Or looks like its chief design influence was the price of cement. Along with the thousands of flats, the resort boasts an unused driving range; a loud but empty disco; a comfortable but abandoned spa; an indoor swimming pool lined with Roman columns but no swimmers; two wide avenues strung permanently with Christmas lights, still turned on every night; a visitor’s center; three real estate sales offices; one foreclosure resale billboard (“Now Is Your Opportunity”); too many restaurants; not enough bars; and an oceanfront stage hosting concerts by Raphael — Spain’s Liberace. All of Marina d’Or is painted in garish colors. Along the shore are gardens decorated with fake Mirós and Dalís, and beyond those is a strand with gorgeous sea views.

Like the airport, Marina d’Or is hopelessly abandoned, except for the staff. The place still opens every morning and closes every night, with dozens of weary employees putting out chairs and terrace umbrellas, firing up grills and leaf blowers, lighting the Christmas lights, and even renting out the occasional flat to the occasional, usually foreign, visitor.

“It’s beautiful here. But I thought there’d be people,” said Adam, a tourist from Brighton, England, who asked that I not use his last name because “this has really turned out quite strange.” He was on vacation with his girlfriend, Rachel, who had liked the pictures online. They sat amid 200 empty chairs in a terrace by a lawn.

“Bit empty, ’innit?” he said.

Carrying people from the cold of Scandinavia, England, and Eastern Europe to Marina d’Or was supposed to have been the job of planes landing at the Castellón Airport.

•  •  •

“Since the crisis has come, we’ve seen how tourism has fallen, in all the projects,” said Marina Albiol of Castellón’s United Left party. Albiol is a representative in the local legislature, and the airport’s most vocal critic inside the government. “I doubt much that an airport will work. I hope it works now that it’s done. I hope there is activity, that it’s economically productive. But we doubt it.”

Seated in a café in Castello de la Plana, it didn’t take the 29-year-old politician long to move on from tourism statistics. “The entire project is part of the personality of Carlos Fabra,” she said.

After undergoing liver surgery, Fabra left office in March last year. But a week later, he and Francisco Camps, were — in a surreal twist — inviting thousands to an inauguration of an airport without planes, complete with ribbon cutting in the arrivals hall. At that event, he boomed to news cameras: “This is not a land of failure! … I give you just three words! Castellón! Castellón! Castellón!” He and Camps announced an open house effective immediately, inviting the community to come wander through the halls for the next month and a half. The doors were open, he declared.

Within days of the perplexing inauguration, 6,000 Castellón residents had joined a Facebook group proposing a rave on the 3,000-yard-long runway. The invitation was adorned with a doctored photo of Fabra in a pink flight attendant’s hat, and Camps blowing confetti from a pipe.

That canceled the open house, and since, no one has entered the facility without permission from Concesiones Aeroportuarias S.A.

•  •  •

Even though the Castellón airport is run by a private company, the local government did, some years back, create a public entity to act as an overseer, with regulatory powers. Called Aerocas (“Airport of Castellón”), the public agency is supposed to ensure that the private one, Concesiones Aeroportuarias S.A., complies with the terms of its government contract, according to Salom Pérez.

In the fall, Aerocas announced its new head of operations: Carlos Fabra. The government Fabra led established an oversight body that he now runs, which signed a contract with the company he helped found. Concesiones Aeroportuarias will run the airport, still empty as of this writing, for the next 40 years.