17th Nov 2019

Ghost airports drain EU taxpayers' money

  • An empty waiting hall at Vigo airport in Spain, probed by EU auditors (Photo: Vigo airport)

Twenty EU-financed airports in Estonia, Greece, Italy, Poland and Spain have misspent large sums of EU taxpayers' money for well over a decade.

A report out Tuesday (16 December) by the European Court of Auditors found that €255 million - more than half of the EU funds audited - went into unnecessary expansion projects.

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“This is an important finding,” Luc T`Joen, the report’s lead auditor, told journalists in Brussels.

Vanity projects in small regional airports, shoddy oversight by the European Commission, no local quality control checks, and overoptimistic passenger number forecasts are among the list of problems to have helped sap public coffers dry in times of economic crisis.

To add to the woe, only four of the airports turned any sort of profit while others run losses that require even more public money to keep them afloat. No one is using the funds efficiently.

The commission, which received some of the auditors' scorn, said it plans to introduce "radical" changes to rein in the abuse. This includes new conditions and quality review process on all new major works.

Asked by reporters why this wasn’t done before, an EU commission spokesperson said it was because member states are now in talks to set up a new structure to better distribute regional aid.

The response did not address the millions already lost.

According to the auditors, some €129 million of the EU money was spent on entirely useless airport projects.

The auditors targeted eight airports in Spain, five in Italy, three in Greece and two each in Estonia and Poland.

Between 2000 and 2013, the airports received €666 million from the European regional development fund and the cohesion fund. The budget investigators audited €460 million of that total.

Most of the money went to building terminals and runaways in airports forecasted to attract new passengers.

Few if any new passengers turned up after the expansion projects had been completed.

“The Court found that the additional passengers were likely to be on average 36 percent less than had been forecast at the time of deciding on the investments,” said T`Joen.

Some egregious examples of waste are in Greece and in Spain.

Kastoria airport in Greece spent over €5 million of EU money to build a runway that has never been used by any type of aircraft it was designed for.

“This cannot be considered as an effective use of public funds,” notes the 72-page report.

Kastoria makes little money. Over a seven-year period, it generated only €176,000 in revenues while running costs soared to €7.7 million.

Last year, the airport saw around 5,300 passengers, a marginal increase from the year before.

A cargo project at Thessaloniki airport in Greece cost the EU €7 million. Today, it stands empty.

Millions spent to build new terminals at the Spanish airports have also proved to be fruitless.

Spain’s Fuerteventura airport built a new terminal with €21 million in EU funds. Part of the terminal is shut because it is too big. They had forecasted 7.5 million passengers by 2015 but only 4.3 million showed up last year.

In other cases, the Spanish government green-lighted expensive expansion projects despite initial forecast projections that found them entirely unnecessary.

In 2008, it poured €70 million, of which over €12 million was EU money, into Cordoba airport to expand the runway without conducting any analysis of potential growth despite announcing 179,000 passengers would show up in 2013.

The auditors say the government provided no justification for the 179,000 figure. Last year, fewer than 7,000 passengers arrived at the airport while millions landed in nearby airports in Malaga and Seville.

Probed airports in Italy, Poland, and Estonia don’t fare any better.

A separate inquiry by Reuters had also found that the EU had given Poland, generally considered a good student in terms of spending EU funds, over €100 million to build three airports that few bother using.


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