Portugal has seen its air traffic figures increase by as much as 80% in the last five years. As a result, its transportation infrastructure, and Lisbon's airport in particular, cannot cope with the rising numbers. A new airport project that will turn a military base into a commercial airport is now under discussion to bring much-needed relief to air traffic.
When Humberto Delgado airport, then known as Lisbon International Airport, was inaugurated over 70 years ago, it stood far from the city limits of the time, surrounded by nature. The reality today is quite different, as Lisbon continues to grow, making the airport a near-city center facility.
The limitations of the airport have been under the spotlight for years, with a botched project for a new airport in Alcochete proposed in 2008 by the government of former Prime Minister Jose Socrates. There were many reasons why the Alcochete project never moved forward, either due to political or environmental concerns, but it was the economic crisis that hit the country in 2009 that shelved most of the planned mega-infrastructure projects.
As debated as the construction of a second airport may have been, no one could have predicted just how quickly Humberto Delgado airport would reach its maximum capacity. According to Francisco Pita, Chief Commercial Officer at the airport manager ANA, “no one could have predicted what has happened. We got to 2018 with 10 million more passengers. We will close the year with 29 million passengers. That is 10 million more than the predictions 10 years ago.” The airport’s maximum capacity is set at 30 million passengers per year, and estimates indicate that a lack of physical capability during peak periods cost the airport and the city as many as 1.8 million visitors in 2018 alone.
To respond to this continued growth, the current government has pledged to move forward with the conversion of the Montijo military airport base into a new civilian airport, located across the Tagus river but at a relatively close distance from the city center. The project is being pushed by ANA, which is owned by the French group Vinci, with the support of the Portuguese government.
While the cost for the airport has not been officially published, most estimates point to as much as EUR1 billion, an investment said to be financed solely by ANA. Initially, as was the case in many European cities, the second airport was meant to cater to low-cost airlines. That, however, no longer seems to be the case. To the press, ANA has stated that the Montijo airport will instead offer high-end services for airlines offering direct flights to Lisbon from the rest of Europe, and that it was not designed with low-cost airlines in mind. Solutions to speed the transfers between the new airport and city center are also being planned. ANA has already reached an agreement of principle with the Portuguese armed forces to turn the military base into a mixed military/civilian facility. The EH101 helicopter fleet and C295 cargo aircraft belonging to the Air Force will be relocated to other bases, while the Navy Lynx helicopters and new KC390 aircraft (which will arrive in Portugal in 2021) will be housed at the new airport, sharing it with commercial flights.
In terms of capacity, ANA predicts the current Humberto Delgado airport will be able to process 48 movements (inbound and outbound) per hour and be able to add another 24 at Montijo, raising the total to 72 movements per hour. According to ANA’s estimates, this increase should be enough to deal with growing demand until 2050, with a total capacity of 50 million passengers per year. If all goes according to plan, the Montijo airport conversion will be finished by late 2021 and open for commercial operations in 2022.
For now, the only missing piece is the environmental impact assessment study that ANA has pledged to deliver before end-2018. The base is located within the limits of the Tagus Estuary Natural Reserve, home to a sensitive ecosystem, which has raised concerns and protests from some social and environmental associations. But with several airlines, including the national airline TAP and European low-cost operator EasyJet, pointing out the limitations of the Humberto Delgado airport as a restraint to the growth of their business in the Portuguese market, finding a middle ground that will meet the interests of all concerned parties will be a difficult challenge.