Minister bemoans rising backlash to Montijo airport
Pedro Nuno Santos has been tipped as a possible successor to António Costa

Minister bemoans rising backlash to Montijo airport

Portugal’s Minister for Infrastructure and Housing had harsh words to say to opponents trying to scupper plans to build a new secondary international airport on the south bank of Lisbon’s River Tagus.

Pedro Nuno Santos, who was guest speaker at the International Club of Portugal (ICPT), explained how the controversy and opposition to the selected site for Lisbon’s new secondary international airport at Montijo was “boycotting our own economic and transport infrastructure development”.

“We have been studying alternative locations for a new airport for 50 years, with 17 locations studied, and now, when it is down to me to oversee this project, it is hardly a joy to see people arguing, once again, over which of these locations is the perfect one,” he said.

“Here we are, at the 11th-hour, faced with a series of alternative possibilities to resolve the chosen one that is now considered a disaster for the country.”

Since the Portuguese environmental agency gave the green light for Lisbon’s secondary airport to go ahead, there have been a number of opposing voices both inside and outside Portugal. The latest came last week when thousands of Dutch citizens signed their names to a new petition calling for the Portuguese government to pull back from its “ecologically disastrous plan for an airport at Montijo”.

Concerns centre on the estimated 50,000 black-tailed godwits which reside in the area between January and February, right next to the airport site, and could spell disaster on a busy flight path.

This month, too, it was widely reported that TAP itself didn’t want to fly to Montijo and neither did low-cost airlines easyJet or Ryanair.

In fact, Expresso ran a story in which it discovered that none of the large airlines operating in Portugal wanted to fly to the future new Montijo airport, while TAP moaned Montijo would adversely affect its business strategy, while the only takers were those who couldn’t get a slot or space from the existing overcapacity Lisbon airport.

And while supporting the building of a new international airport at Montijo, the national carrier TAP explained it won’t fly there because its business model is calculated on transporting transcontinental passengers to Lisbon (not Montijo) since it is “highly dependent on links to other flights” and in the time taken in ferrying them to the other side of the river, it ran a high risk that those passengers would lose their onward connections.

Access problems

On January 8, 2019, ANA Aeroportos de Portugal, the airport management company, and the State signed an agreement to expand the airport capacity for Lisbon with a €1.5 billion investment to 2028 which would increase Lisbon’s existing Humberto Delgado international airport and turn the former airforce base at Montijo into a new secondary airport.

At the end of January this year, the Portuguese environment agency APA announced that it would give the project the green light. An environmental impact statement providing around 160 measures to minimise the impact of the new airport was accepted by the government and ANA, which would place an extra €49 million on the final bill.

The minister has admitted that the access routes to the airport site are “insufficient” under the current plan to meet the needs of Lisbon.

“Obviously, ANA understands that it must have a good relationship both with the Portuguese government and people, as well as with the cities from where airports under its management operate.”

Nuno Santos said he was convinced that the government and ANA would reach an agreement so that the concession contract could be changed.

In the package regarding accesses, there are currently plans for a new road link to the A12, as well as two new Transtejo river ferries and a shuttle with a link between the river ferry station at Seixalinho and the airport.

However, it was one thing discussing accesses and another discussing locations for the airport itself. The minister complained that recent arguments had made it seem “like we are going back to the beginning”, referring to a proposal that now the airport should be built further upriver at Alverca.

Supporters of the Alverca solution suggest that, with a more restrained investment, the State could turn an airbase at Alverca into an example of a model case study airport for other governments in Europe to follow.

José Furtado, an engineer who had worked on the Alverca proposal, has said it would be possible to create a proper international airport serving the whole of the Lisbon Metropolitan area. “Our suggestion is to widen and lengthen the existing runway from 45 metres to 75 metres, which would enable all types of aircraft, including transatlantic carriers like Boeing 747 and Airbus A380, to operate from there,” he told online news source O Mirante.

“If the Montijo solution goes ahead, there will be many more planes flying over the city than now with all the attendant noise, whereas in Alverca the local population would hardly be affected because the flights would be closer to the water,” he says.

Going round in circles

The minister contested that local interests were fighting for the airport to be in one place or another, like “fans fighting over the location of a football club” but with “serious consequences for the rest of us”. He added that various socialist governments had already discussed this in the past, with proposed locations like Ota and Alcochete, and that criticism at the time was that it was a “megalomaniac investment” that the country could ill afford. Alternatively, it was suggested that Portugal, given its size and financial capacity, should invest in Portela+1, meaning improving the current Lisbon facilities and building a smaller secondary airport relatively nearby.

“Now it seems we are going full circle again, with a team supporting Alcochete, another team supporting Portela and now Alverca. Here we are again running the risk or having a stalemate delaying a project of national importance,” lamented the minister.

Nuno Santos reminded those at the lunch that, from the summer of 2020, up to 400,000 passengers would not be able to fly to Lisbon airport because it is full and no longer has the capacity to take that number of flights, let alone process the passengers.

“I, as a member of the government, have to take responsibility for the situation we’re in and I refuse to get involved in yet another movement of stop-start, stop-start over the location of this new airport,” he said.

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