Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Spain's empty airports (II): competing to become the gateway to the Pyrenees

With this post I intend to continue the series I opened a few weeks ago about the many underused airports spread across the Spanish geography, a reminder of the construction bonanza of the last few years...

Today I am going to focus on two recently inaugurated airports, Huesca (HSK) and Lleida (ILD) that are vying to become the main gateway to the Pyrenees and to the multiple ski resorts that dot this imponent mountain range that separates Spain from France.

Huesca airport is located near the city of the same name, that is the capital of a province that includes most of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees and ski resorts such as Candanchu, Formigal and Panticosa. This airport is part of Aena's network (the Spanish public airport operator). This investment has been strongly questioned, given the small number of passengers that use the facility and the limited impact it has on the local tourism industry in an area where the vast majority of skiers arrive by car. Traffic numbers certainly abysmal, around 6,000 passengers a year (and a record low of 8 passengers in October 2010), this means there is a annual operating deficit of €700 per passenger (and this does not even take into account the initial investment)! There is currently no regular traffic at the airport and only Monarch airlines and Pyrenair (using Air Nostrum aircraft) operates some seasonal flights during two winter months from UK airports and from Madrid, Valencia and La Coruna.

Prospects do not look very good, particuarly when you take into consideration that Huesca is, given its size and geographical position, quite well connected to the rest of Spain, it has high speed rail services to Madrid and a free motorway links it to the regional capital, Zaragoza, a much larger city (with a population of over 700,000), that, curiously enough has, possibly, the opposite problem, an underused airport, that is shared with a military base, with considerable potential, given the city's growing role as a logistics center (I'll write about this case in a future post...) .

And let's not forget the newest airport that has been built with the Pyrenean gateway in mind: Lleida. I already wrote a post about it last year, where you can find some details about it. This airport, managed by the Catalan government, has a slightly larger local market than Huesca, but faces pretty much the same challenge: to find enough demand to consolidate regular routes. There are a number of routes currently being operated from the airport, Ryanair and Vueling fly to several European and Spanish destinations, but they are heavily subsidised and doubts remain on their long-term survival. Pyrenair has also started some winter flights to Spanish and Portuguese destinations, targeting the ski market.

Lleida has the advantage of having relatively easy access to the most international ski area of the Pyrenees, the Andorran ski resorts, that attract a number of British and Russian skiers that, although not as huge as in the Alps, can guarantee a considerable amount of traffic to a small airport like Lleida. Most of this traffic was currently being channeled through Toulouse airport (TLS), in France, but they might be ready to switch their operations to the South side of the Pyrenees if they eye an attractive enough deal, this is the case of Neilson, that recently announced that, after striking a very favourable deal that includes tax reductions, is going to fly over 20,000 British skiers per year to Lleida for the next five ski seasons.

Despite these efforts, there is another airport that has strong chances of becoming the "real" gateway to the Pyrenees: Barcelona (BCN).

Although we tend to think about Barcelona as a sunny Mediterranean city, the fact is that the Catalan captial is just over an hour and a half by car from teh closest ski slopes, a time that has been reduced considerably through improvements in land transport links, the (unlikely-to-succeed) bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics might speed up some public works already in progress, such as the completion of the Barcelona-Toulouse motorway that will bring the Pyrenees and Andorra much closer to the metropolis and its airport.

Approximate catchment areas of the airports of Huesca (HSK), Lleida (ILD), Toulouse-Blagnac (TLS), Zaragoza (ZAZ) and Barcelona-el Prat (BCN), and their respective positions relative to the Pyrenees. For the sake of simplicity I have not included other airports in the vicinity such as Girona (GRO), Pau-Tarbes (PUF) or Perpignan (PGF)


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