End of journey for quixotic airport project which led to collapse of local bank
‘Ciudad Real airport was the most spectacular raid on public money ever in Castile-La Mancha’
Empty terminal building at Ciudad Real. Photograph: Mary Boland
A white limousine, once used to service passengers landing on private jets at Ciudad Real airport, is left in the car park. Photograph: Mary Boland
The terminal building at Ciudad Real airport.
A partially complete walkway which was due to link Cuidad Real International Airport with an adjacent train station.
In the land of Don Quijote, where windmills whir among olive trees on dusty scrubland, stands a giant white elephant that would have made the chivalrous wanderer tilt in terror.
The only flights out of Ciudad Real airport these days are by hawks and falcons that soar above the rabbits scampering across its desolate 4km runway. A gangway that extends optimistically from its state-of-the-art terminal building towards the nearby high-speed rail track ends abruptly in mid-air like an amputated limb while the train itself whizzes past.
The airport, 180km south of Madrid, opened in 2008 at a reported cost of up to €1.1 billion. It closed less than four years later, one of many grandiose infrastructure projects built during Spain’s boom which later proved unviable.
The region’s savings bank, which held a 68 per cent stake in direct and indirect investment in the airport, had also collapsed. With no irony intended, its owners called it Don Quijote airport. Now the quixotic project has been renamed Ciudad Real Central.
With a runway long enough to land the world’s largest airliner, an Airbus 380, and built to accommodate 10 million passengers a year, Ciudad Real airport was supposed to bring more than 5,000 jobs to the area.
But all projections proved wildly inaccurate. The maximum number of airport employees was only ever about 300, most of whom were quickly laid off as annual passenger numbers never exceeded 54,000.
The only activity the airport has seen since was earlier this year when the BBC’s Top Gear filmed its presenters racing cars on the closed runway.
Now, following a decision in August by a judge handling the administration of the bankrupt airport company, the facility is for sale for just €100 million – a bargain if the buyer didn’t also have to take on its €529 million debt to airlines, savings banks and to residents whose land was compulsorily bought to make way for the project.
When a local construction magnate came up with the idea for the airport in the 1990s, Spain’s 17 regional governments were pouring public money into such trophy schemes.
“They were all competing, building absurd things that never made any sense but ended up costing the people,” says local journalist Carlos Otto. “We are a town of only 76,000 people – it was never going to work.” Ciudad Real already had its high-speed rail link to Madrid, a journey that takes 50 minutes.
The airport was in name a private venture but the investors behind it had no problem getting political backing from Castile-La Mancha’s then-Socialist government.
It gave subsidies to attract airlines and, crucially, because political appointees sat on the board of regional savings bank the Caja Castilla La Mancha (as was the case with all of Spain’s cajas before their collapse), getting the bank to invest in such a scheme proved easy. In theory, however, the cajas were non-profit bodies supposed to reinvest profits in the regional economies.