Spain Ghost Airports

13:25 El NACHO 0 Comments

The glittering buildings rise up from Spain's arid central plain.

Draw closer and there's something eerie about Ciudad Real's Central Airport. There's hardly a plane in sight. Nobody's around. Cars can only be heard faintly in the distance.

This is one of Spain's "ghost airports" — huge projects often funded by taxpayer money that helped drive Spain's economic boom and now symbolize the wasteful spending that contributed to its spectacular bust.

Envisioned three years ago as a satellite airport for congested Madrid, Central boasts one of Europe's longest runways, yet there's hardly a skid-mark from the handful of weekly flights it now handles. Its vast and airy terminal, designed to handle 2.5 million passengers a year, echoes every sound.

Spain's downturn has played its role in Central's woes, but critics say it was never a viable airport from the beginning — a pork-barrel project too far from the capital to serve any real purpose.

With Spain struggling to emerge from an economic downturn that has saddled it with a euro-zone high unemployment rate of 21 percent, principally due to the collapse of its oversized construction sector, Central stands as a cautionary tale for a Spain adjusting to leaner times.

But signs abound that Spain has not fully learned the lessons of its profligate spending. Spain recently announced a high-speed rail link to the sparsely populated northwest region of Galicia, a plan many economists see as an extravagance. Bridge and highway projects are plowing forward in the face of criticism that Spain just can't afford them.

"We had great hopes for Central, we believed in it, dreamt about it, we thought it was going to be the region's salvation," said Ciudad Real taxi driver Enrique Buendia, who can hardly remember the last time he got a run to the airport.

"But, when you mix politicians and business it's bad news."

Indeed, it's an unhealthy mix of politics and business that critics blame for white elephants such as the airport in Ciudad Real, a city of 74,000 people. Spain has a history of pouring public money into dodgy projects to fuel the careers of ambitious politicians and local entrepreneurs.

The airports and other projects illustrate how regional governments and government-linked savings banks drove themselves into a debt swamp from which it will take years to emerge.

Analysts see regional government debt as being one of the main drags on Spain's bid to slash its deficit from 11.2 percent of GDP in 2009 to within the European Union limit of 3 percent by 2013.

Central is busy compared to two-year-old Huesca airport in northern Spain, whose 30 employees won't see a commercial flight for some six months. Its restaurant is busy, but with local people and because it serves good meals.

Then there's Castellon on the airport-abundant eastern coast. Costing some euro150 million, it opened in March and hasn't yet seen a plane. It most likely won't for a while as the national airport authority ponders whether to grant it a license.

Castellon was built on the promise of future theme parks that have yet to materialize, making its future look bleak.

At its entrance there is to be a 24-meter (79 foot) statue to Carlos Fabra, the provincial president of Castellon who commissioned the project, and has been investigated several times for corruption.