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More indecision in Portugal on ‘the future airport solution in Lisbon’

Analysis

The location of a new, second, airport to serve the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, has been discussed for a quarter of a century, perhaps even longer, and the potential location has changed on several occasions.

What is known for sure is that there is a glaring need for one.

The existing airport cannot be expanded much more as it is constrained within suburban areas. The owner has invested as far as it can within these constraints and is promising more cash, but the ‘solution’ was to be the conversion of a military base, Montijo.

But that project is suspended pending an environmental examination, which is going on forever. Now a strategic study will look again at whether a location at Alcochete would be more appropriate – one that has previously been disregarded.

Summary

  • Lisbon’s Montijo Airport (military base) conversion halted by environmental protests and local authorities' veto.
  • The protests are becoming international.
  • The timescale for the project’s completion could be between five and 15 years; ANA and the government at loggerheads.
  • Humberto Delgado Airport is emerging from the coronavirus pandemic-related slump and could be back to capacity sooner rather than later.
  • A possible new airport location at Alcochete has found its way back onto the radar.  

Portuguese government launches strategic assessment tender for solution to Lisbon airports conundrum

Portugal's Government has launched an international public tender to carry out a strategic assessment for the ‘future airport solution’ in Lisbon, with a deadline for submissions of 15-Dec-2021.

The study will explore capacity distribution options between Lisbon Humberto Delgado Airport and the proposed New Lisbon (Montijo) Airport, which is on the southern bank of the Tagus River, about 30 km from the city centre.

That is perfectly reasonable. Montijo is a military base and the philosophy has been that it would act as an airport primarily supporting low cost carriers (LCCs), with the existing Humberto Delgado airport supporting full service carriers, and especially the hub activities of TAP Air Portugal.

Accordingly, there are questions as to how the two will airports will be integrated by way of surface transport.

The Alcochete option makes a miraculous return

But the devil is in the detail here, because the study will also consider the benefits of constructing the new airport in Alcochete instead. That would be a remarkable turnaround because Alcochete first came under consideration two decades ago, and had long been dispensed with as a potential location for a new Lisbon airport.

There appears even to be indecision on the timescale for the opening of a new airport with the Portuguese Minister of Infrastructure and Housing (some countries roll up all infrastructure and transport into one Ministry and it may not be the best way of handling major transport decisions). The ministry is contradicting the president of ANA – Aeroportos de Portugal by insisting that a future airport will be built before 2035. The Minister spoke of a new airport being “of public interest” rather than of the “private interest” of ANA (which is owned by VINCI Airports).

ANA said it will invest EUR1.15 billion on the expansion of Lisbon’s current airport and the construction of the new one at Montijo.

A Star Trek timescale

It certainly is of public interest, and it is most definitely needed before 2035, which is a Star Trek timescale in the light of the events of the past two years while ANA has been unable to boldly go anywhere.

Humberto Delgado and “full to capacity” went hand in hand for many years before the pandemic, and despite some considerable investment by VINCI since it took over matters, it had not improved notably. The airport’s passenger traffic belatedly multiplied rapidly from 2014 (including four successive years of double digit growth), courtesy mainly of the LCCs that were encouraged to operate there.

Lisbon Humberto Delgado Airport: passenger numbers/growth, 2011-2021 (Jan-2021 to Jul-2021 YTD)

Inadequate infrastructure, despite investment

With no room for expansion of Humberto Delgado (it is hemmed in on all sides by residential and commercial suburbs), the LCCs, including TAP’s own budget subsidiary, were directed to makeshift facilities on the far side of the airfield with a lengthy passenger transfer to and from the main terminal. This prompted them, led as always by Ryanair, to pressure the government for ‘purpose built’ facilities at Montijo as soon as possible.

And despite the ravages of the pandemic, ‘as soon as possible’ still applies.

Capacity is returning rapidly to an airport which serves a popular tourist destination and with onward connections to dependencies in the North Atlantic Ocean, also to Latin America and countries in Africa where Portugal was once the colonial power.  

Lisbon Humberto Delgado Airport: weekly total system seats capacity, 2018-2022* (projected)

Humberto Delgado airport is on track to match 2018 capacity, possibly that of 2019, early next year.

The chairman of ANA recently spoke of a “schizophrenic” situation in which there is a concessionaire that wants to invest in the airport, but that contrasts with “several external vicissitudes and context constraints” that do not allow it to move forward.

He also said that if the agreement signed with the government in 2019, which provided for the construction of the new airport in Montijo, had been fulfilled, then in 2024 the country would have “a new airport infrastructure”, including a facility that could receive 10 million more passengers annually, recalling that 95% of tourists arrive in Portugal by air and that without new infrastructure, “tourism does not grow.”

Portuguese law permits local vetoes

The Infrastructure Minister, for his part, points out that the decision to build the new airport in Montijo was actually made (in 2018), but that it could not go ahead because there was a veto by two local municipalities, as provided for by the law; a law he considers “wrong”.  

Accordingly, the aviation regulator refused to evaluate plans for the airport. The project can only go ahead if all local governments provide a positive response, but in any case, that would be more than his job’s worth.

The government had advocated changing the law, but does not have an absolute majority. It had got the agreement of the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) to change the law but the PSD demanded a ‘strategic environmental assessment’, which will assess the advantages and disadvantages of building the future airport in Montijo and Alcochete in order to achieve the consensus that will allow the law to be changed.

The minister insists that this assessment will take time (they always do, and they have led to numerous projects being abandoned as they were overtaken by events while an environmental assessment dragged on – a famous example being the Ciudad Real airport in central Spain), but he is committed to the 2035 date, “or well before”.    

The strength of environmental opposition is considerable, international, and growing

The strength of the environmental opposition, manly from the organisation Climáximo, is not to be underestimated here, as it isn’t anywhere, and it sheds light on why the minister envisages such a prolonged timeframe.

When activists sport flags that don’t show an airport or aircraft with a red cross through it, but rather an aircraft in flames, you sense that they mean business.

Other banners proclaim “Fewer planes, More trains” but trains won’t be bringing the tourists in. The protesters might not want them, but the society at large does. Tourism accounted for 15% of Portugal’s GDP before the pandemic.

Climáximo has quickly learned tactics from Insulate UK, a spin-off of Extinction Rebellion which habitually blocks roads, daring motorists to drive over them and irrespective of the reason for the road journey, including emergencies. That has been happening recently close to the Lisbon airport, and although the Portuguese police have been rougher dealing with the protests than their British counterparts, no charges have yet been brought, opening the way for the protesters to return.

They may have a point, in that the new airport plan is at odds with the government’s commitment to reduce emissions and become carbon neutral by 2050.

But if so, that would be replicated around the world as many governments equally aspire to such carbon neutrality. That position has been seized upon by protesters as a catalyst by which to strike for the imposition of much more draconian intervention into an industry which tries its best to assuage drummed-up public distaste for its activities but which is struggling to get Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) into aircraft with any consistency. An industry that faces a realistic wait of decades for hydrogen and/or electric aircraft to be certified, and to prove their value to the bottom line as well as to the climate.

In other words, governments will soon have to face up to a stark choice: do we continue to press for, and bring forward, carbon neutrality targets or are we prepared to make industry-specific concessions?

Hopefully, the topic will be thrashed out at the COP26 conference but it probably won’t be. No one will want to appear to be ‘stepping out of line’.

It doesn’t help the Portuguese government that the activists are not alone in opposing the Montijo project.

In Mar-2021 more than 40 scientists signed an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister expressing their concerns about the environmental impact of the project and reminding the government of its commitment to protect biodiversity and reduce carbon emissions as part of the ‘European Green Deal.’ (To make the matter worse, the Montijo airbase is located close to wetlands and the warning repeats – “the birds won’t move, so build your airport there and you risk bird strikes”).

On top of all this, foreign conservationists are jumping on the bandwagon. The latest is a Dutch group, which has plenty of experience in denying expansion of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and nearby Lelystad Airport (the Dutch equivalent of Humberto Delgado and Montijo). This is a group that collected a 40,000- strong petition to the Portuguese government – thousands of kilometres away on the other side of Europe.

If this does not send out a clear message about the strength of the opposition to the industry in its present state, never mind its expansion, then nothing will.

Two examples of airport developments ‘being halted’ are put forward, but the small print tells a different story

The environmental lobby in Portugal is tabling two developments outside the country where airport plans were challenged successfully.

The first one, coincidentally although perhaps fortunately for them, involves VINCI’s (the ultimate owner of the Portuguese airports) plan to build a new airport in the village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near the French city of Nantes.

Residents, farmers and environmental activists opposed the plan, which also threatened a protected wetland. In 2018 the French government (which has become increasingly 'green' every year) announced the abandonment of the new airport.

What is not mentioned is that the old airport, Atlantique, remains in place. That that airport was growing very quickly before the pandemic (+8%; +14% and +20% in 2017/2018/2019), and that very expansive reparations may have to be made by the French government to VINCI (up to EUR1 billion); money that could have been employed ‘environmentally’ elsewhere.

Another example is a British court’s decision in 2020 to declare plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport illegal and in breach of the UK’s climate change commitments.

The ruling was made on the grounds that the policy of expanding an airport is incompatible with commitments made by the government in the Paris Climate Agreement. Again, what is not mentioned is that the ruling was subsequently overturned by the High Court and that Heathrow is free to build its runway, albeit that it will be further delayed.

The Portuguese lobbyists might have mentioned the proposed ‘Boris Island’ in the River Thames Estuary which was a project of the current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as an alternative to expansion at Heathrow when he was Mayor of London, and which was withdrawn when it garnered support from hardly anyone outside City Hall.

The presence of wetland birds was a factor there too, and with the same warning, “they won’t go away and your planes will crash”, but it was one of many projects and (pardon the pun) well down the pecking order.

Putting Alcochete back in the mix has stirred up a hornets’ nest – what next, Ota proposed again?

Perhaps the most bizarre outcome of this hiatus in the Montijo project is that the possibility of a new airport being developed at Alcochete instead has made a miraculous reappearance.

An environmental assessment will also be carried out to study the impact of a second option, that of building the airport in Alcochete, further north in the Tagus estuary.

ANA has defended Montijo as the best option and the airport expansion as “fundamental for the economic development and recovery of the tourism sector.” That is why Alcochete, which had been ‘on the cards’ for over a decade as a potential site for a new airport, was originally dismissed.

Alcochete, which is close to Montijo, had been the choice of numerous government advisors, as was the military base of Alverca. The original selection in recent times, which held sway for several years, was at Ota, well to the north of the capital.

Alcochete, Montijo, Lisbon and Lisbon Humberto Delgado Airport, relative locations

The way things are, it would be of no great surprise if Ota also began to be proposed as a site again.

What is the case for sure is that the lack of airport capacity and an airline (TAP) ‘on hold’ are major constraints to the recovery and growth of the tourism sector, and therefore of the Portuguese economy.

Airport projects are complex and involve many parties who cannot sit and wait

The government must also bear in mind that there are numerous investment projects in the pipeline for the infrastructure that goes with new airports, such as hotels, offices and supply chain facilities.

There is a consensus that Portuguese aviation could return to ‘normal’ as early as 2023, and the evidence does seem to point in that direction. If it does, then Humberto Delgado could be overwhelmed by the demand.

In contrast, even If it goes well, the environmental study will take at least a year and a half, with another three and a half years of construction to follow, so no new airport for at least another five years.

The previous CAPA report on this subject was in Aug-2020:

https://centreforaviation.com/analysis/reports/lisbon-montijo-airport-law-change-planned-to-open-commercial-flights-532611

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