When Pacific Standardvisited Spain’s ghost airport last year, thieves had just walked off with bronze fingers from a sculpture of the project’s founder, Spanish politician Carlos Fabra. The 100-foot, $300,000 sculpture—and the empty airport it graces—were not yet symbols internationally, but locally everyone knew the story. Inspired by the success of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, every half-solvent town in Spain had decided to build itself a landmark project during boom times early in the new century.
In Fabra’s region, Castellón, the project was a $200 million airport in an olive field—for a town of 500,000, only half an hour from an already-successful airport.
The project has since revealed itself to be a beachfront Versailles, based more on Fabra’s ego than any evidence of need. Plagued by overruns and delays, the now 15-year-old project has proven unable to attract interest from either airlines or passengers. Last year, when PS visited, desperate staff said the airport would be open for business in March 2012, pending deals with three airlines and a rubber stamp for a permit allowing partner airlines to operate jets in the olive grove. That sounded fishy at the time, and was—when we called to follow up, the partner airlines wouldn’t confirm deals, the regulators said their stamp was anything but rubber, and a British consultant that did the original market research said it had been “many years” previous, and pulled Castellón airport from their webpage. The airport has yet to land a single plane.
Which brings us to yesterday, when newspapers around the world reported that Fabra’s sculpture was finally finished, with the installation of a stainless steel airplane atop an artist’s 3-D rendering of the politician’s head. As The New York Times reported, “A plane has finally reached the ghost airport.”
Proving timing really is everything, Carlos Fabra’s daughter, Andrea, a representative in the Spanish parliament, made headlines this week after interrupting an address by Spanish President Mariano Rajoy’s, by shouting, "que se jodan." The insult, reported in the Anglophone press as “strongly worded” and “defamatory,” came in response to Rajoy’s announcement of cutbacks in Spanish unemployment benefits. She has since apologized. Que se jodan subsequently appeared as graffiti on the walls of Spanish banks throughout the country, and it appears that Ms. Fabra has provided Spanish anti-austerity protesters their lemma. Thursday, demonstrations shut down major intersections in Barcelona and Madrid for much of the day.
Fabra stepped down as the head of his political party, the Populist Party, last week after more than two decades. He remains the head of the airport and the local chamber of commerce.
The Castellón airport has since become a symbol of Spain’s collapse into economic ruin: the showpiece failure of a country that could have used good years to invest in industry and better due diligence, but went for low-end tourism and, per a series of federal investigations, graft. A bitter joke is now common in Spain: that the country could have been 1960s California, but settled for 1980s Florida.
For our part, we must admit we missed something during our visit last year. With Spain’s crisis now dominating global headlines, projects like Castellón airport have come to feel like the low-hanging fruit. Since our trip to Castellon, a $200 million (grounded) flight of fancy has come to pale in comparison with more than $191 billion in bad loans Spanish banks have on their books, the Bank of Spain reported last week. Though it remains curious that Spanish regulators could let an apparent megalomaniac spend a quarter billion in public funds on an ill-conceived airport and a 10-story sculpture of himself, the real story got missed. That story was: if a small-town don could get away with this, what were the people with real power doing all that time?
Loaning him the money.