April 21, 2014

World's most expensive - empty - airport.

David Ellis

IF you think Qantas has problems, consider a whopping international airport in Spain that cost almost the equivalent of AU$1.7-billion to build in 2008, and although able to handle a mind-boggling 10-million passengers a year, hasn't seen a single plane or passenger for over two years.

And when it recently went up for auction with a starting price of just $170-million – a mere ten per cent of its original cost – the modern, pristine but idle airport did not attract a single bid.

Now the receivers are thinking of lowering the reserve to just AU$136-million… and if they don't get that, they've indicated they'll maybe even think about no reserve at all – proving, that indeed, desperate men do desperate things.

The bizarre case of the Ciudad Central Airport in the city of Ciudad Real, about 200km south of Madrid, began during Spain's property bubble whose origins were in the late 1990s, a time when developers were throwing money at anything they thought people would have a use for, and which imploded dramatically in 2008 – just as the airport opened.

Ciudad Central had been seen as a hub for millions of holidaymakers who would fly in from around Europe and Britain, taking the high- speed AVE train from a station right at the airport to Madrid and archaeologically-fascinating Cordoba (each about just-50 minutes away,) and to Seville and Malaga a further hour or so by the AVE.

But the proposed AVE station – that would have been the first-ever high-speed rail station at a Spanish airport – never eventuated, the bottom fell out of both the property market and the Spanish economy, and rather than flying-in by their millions, tourists and other travellers stayed away by the never-to-arrive plane-load.

Built as Spain's first privately-owned international airport, Ciudad Central appeared almost jinxed from the start, when the developers named their massive $1.7-billion venture Don Quixote International – a name considered by many as a poor choice, with the 17th century Spanish literary figure, whilst chivalrous, also quite delusional.

The name did not last long, and Don Quixote International was soon changed to Ciudad Real Central.

And it had everything, from a runway that at 4.2km was one of the longest in Europe and able to take the world's largest aircraft the A380 Airbus, a terminal that could handle those 10-million passengers a year, over a thousand undercover car-parking places, facilities to shift 47,000 tonnes of air-freight annually, maintenance hangars, a heliport, and a covered 300m long walkway to where the AVE station was to be built.

And around all this, an eight square kilometre industrial zone for industries wanting direct-access to freighter aircraft.

Only two things were missing: passengers and those freighter aircraft.

The first passengers had flown into Ciudad in December 2008 on low-cost and charter flights, but major airlines showed no interest.

Eventually eighteen months after opening, Ireland's budget airline Ryanair ventured-in as the first international airline to use Ciudad, with three services a week from London's Stansted Airport. But these lasted only six months until November 2010, carrying some 22,000 passengers in that time.

Air Berlin also flew in for several months, and on October 29 2011 Spanish low-cost service Vueling spelled the final death of Ciudad Real Central when it flew its – and thus the airport's – last service there. After staying open to handle a scattering of private aircraft movements, Ciudad officially closed in April 2012.

The airport's operators filed for bankruptcy with debts in the hundreds of millions, and with total passenger numbers after three years failing to pass the low thousands, compared with the much-hyped 10-million annually.

Since closing, the airport's been used for the filming of a number of motor company advertisements, and it was used for some scenes in a movie "I'm So Excited!" – a comedy that coincidentally is about a flight from Madrid to Mexico that develops mechanical problems, and the reaction of its bisexual pilots, three gay stewards, and those in First Class whom it eventuates include a hit man, a fraudster, a female blackmailer and a film star with girlfriend problems.

And while you're figuring all that out, the receivers of Ciudad Real are still figuring out how they can find someone who wants to buy Spain's most-modern, if emptiest, airport that's going cheap… real cheap.



[] SPAIN'S biggest white elephant, the abandoned $1.7-billion Ciudad Real Central Airport that's just over five years old. (Wikipedia)
[] FORLORN sight from outside, but inside the airport terminal remains in pristine condition. (FlickR)
[] ABANDONED check-in counters ready for action the moment Ciudad Central goes back into business. (Spain Free Press)
[] CARPARK with over a thousand under-cover spaces. (Wikimedia)
[] GOING nowhere: this covered walkway was supposed to lead to a high-speed rail station at the airport. (Spain Free Press)
[] AIR-BERLIN was one of the few international airlines to use Ciudad Real Central, but pulled out after only a few months. (Air-Berlin picture)

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