The disputed capture of asian flights

The present circumstances concerning Europe’s airport system and the air travel market paint a picture that might lead one to think that Spain’s institutions are not playing a neutral role in the competition between the two largest Spanish airports

I clearly remember the landing of the astronauts on the moon. In a bar in Olot, a crowd of spectators looked on with admiration. Suddenly, an unbeliever responded to those who reproached him for his earlier claim that man would never set foot on the moon: "So they say". Despite the visual evidence and the group satisfaction, he had no doubts ...

That amusing episode crossed my mind when I heard the news about the pressure that the Spanish government is applying to bring to Madrid’s Barajas Airport flights from various Asian companies that want to establish air routes between the Catalan capital and various cities in the Far East. Everyone knows that the Spanish airport administration has always promoted the Madrid airport over Barcelona’s El Prat de Llobregat.

The present circumstances concerning Europe’s airport system and the air travel market paint a picture that might lead one to think that Spain’s institutions are not playing a neutral role in the competition between the two largest Spanish airports.

According to an Amadeus report on worldwide air travel trends, the growth in activity is greatest in Asia (9%), far ahead of Latin America (6%) and Europe (4%), while the growth in North America is negligible. Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai are channeling more and more traffic between Europe and Asia, with annual growth of around 20%.

In this scenario it is not surprising that the airline companies from the biggest Asian countries, China, Japan, Korea, and India, want to compete for the huge market in play by establishing or expanding direct connections with Europe. The Air China flight between Beijing and Barcelona, recently inaugurated, is a good example.

The capture of this immense market by the top ten European airports is, right now, a high priority. In Spain both Barajas and El Prat are competing for this. The latter has two factors in its favor: its geographic location, closer to the Orient, and the existence of greater demand among travellers who, for now, have to make a stopover in a third country during the Euro-Asian trajectory. For this reason it’s not surprising that four airlines from India, Korea, and Japan have expressed a desire to operate direct flights to the Catalan capital.

If El Prat was managed individually instead of being dependent on AENA, the most likely outcome would be that we would have those flights available today, or at least we would have a date for the start of operations. But this isn’t the reality, not by a long shot. Spain has at its disposal various tools to direct these flights to another airport, from international agreements that only authorize flights to Barajas, to restricted authorizations, such as the so-called Fifth Freedom, which it has used repeatedly against airports in Catalonia and the Canary Islands, as has been decried in the Spanish parliament by Convergència and Coalición Canaria MPs. In the current case, the news also refers to Madrid’s commitment to speed up the issue of visas and to advantages given for tourism promotion.

In a competitive world, in an open market, where the battle is being played out for flights between the Iberian peninsula and Asia, Spain’s meddling in order to tilt the playing field is unacceptable.

In the summer of 2013, there was a big commotion when El Prat surpassed Barajas in number of users for the first time ever. The reaction of Madrid’s institutions was immediate, even mimicking the successful promotional model of Barcelona city, the Committee for Development of Air Routes that encompassed the Generalitat, City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and AENA, with the goal of drawing in long-haul flights. It’s fine that this was copied --it’s legitimate and a normal part of competition. But at the same time, Spain’s institutions intensified their policies designed to prioritize flights to Barajas. When a direct flight from Asia to Madrid is requested, there are no problems. When the request is for a flight to Barcelona, the behavior is different: they suggest that the flight be extended to Madrid. As this is not always profitable, the new flight is thereby denied.

Catalans are very accustomed to playing on an unfriendly field, and not only in the area of airports. We overcome the adversity with extra effort, and we cannot always enjoy the advantages that our geo-economic situation brings with it. Therefore, to prevent the discrimination against El Prat, those of us whose mission is the defense of the Catalan people’s interests must remain especially attentive and vigilant. We know, as surely as man walked on the moon, that the arbiter of Spain’s airport sector is no paragon of neutrality ...

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