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Catalan flagship


Sonia Corrochano, director of Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport, talks to Joe Bates about the growth, development and future expansion plans of Europe’s seventh busiest passenger gateway.

Barcelona’s Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport (BCN) is Spain’s second biggest gateway after Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas and the seventh busiest airport in Europe based on the 41.6 million passengers to pass through its facilities in 2022.

The reasons for its success are many. It is the gateway to Spain’s second biggest city and the Catalonia region, one of the leading tourist destinations in Europe and a fast growing centre for new technologies, biomedical science and pharmaceuticals.

BCN also enjoys the status of being one of the world’s best connected hubs for international traffic, according to OAG, which ranked it as the tenth best airport in Europe and 44th in the world in 2022 due to its enviable mix of routes across the continent and expanding list of long-haul services.

The appeal of Barcelona

Vueling (40%), Ryanair (18%), easyJet (5%) and Iberia (4%) are the biggest airlines serving BCN today in terms of market share ensuring that the gateway offers some of the most competitively priced airfares for short-haul routes in Europe.

Air France, British Airways and Lufthansa are among the legacy carriers currently serving BCN, whose top 10 airlines between them operate non-stop services to many of the 146 destinations across Europe served from Barcelona.

American Airlines, Delta, United, Air Canada, Avianca, Asiana, Latam, Singapore Airlines, Korean Air and Air China are some of the carriers operating intercontinental flights to BCN from a total of 43 destinations across North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and North and South America.

Airport director, Sonia Corrochano, believes that the combination of BCN’s extensive European route network and lower airfares compared to other hubs helps make the airport, and subsequently the city of Barcelona, one of most unique and attractive to visit in Europe.

“Barcelona is a fantastic city to visit and has regularly been voted one of the best places on earth to live and work in,” enthuses Corrochano.

“Those unfamiliar with the city tend to only think about its appeal to tourists, but I always say that the success of the airport is also down to the success of the companies that are based here as much as tourism and the many different activities you can do here in the city and Catalonia in general”.

“The three business activities that are really developing here are biomedical sciences, information technology and telecommunications – being driven by Microsoft and a number of start-up technology companies – and pharmaceuticals. BCN’s status as the most connected airport to other cities in Europe has proved pivotal to this growth.”

The benefits of having two major hubs

Corrochano considers that having two large gateways in Spain (Madrid and Barcelona) is a strength for the country and a strength for the aeronautical sector.

MAD is Spain’s busiest airport, of course, and BCN is the next biggest in terms of passenger numbers and aircraft movements, but Corrochano is keen to point out that both gateways complement each other and are key to the success of the country’s entire airport system.

She is also quick to stress that Aena’s strategy is to continue to enhance the facilities and route networks across all of its airports (see Aena’s Spanish airport network section on pages 18/19) to offer the best possible service to passengers and the airlines.

Focusing on BCN, she is in no doubt that it will remain a top European hub going forward, particularly if it can further expand its long-haul route network.

“We are among the top 10 airports in Europe for connectivity and doing well, but if you look at all the other airports in the OAG rankings you’ll see that they are the main hub of their respective countries and the home of their legacy carriers, so it would be very difficult for Barcelona to overtake an airport like Amsterdam Schiphol or Paris Charles de Gaulle,” says Corrochano.

“Air France is the dominant at Charles de Gaulle, for example. KLM accounts for most of the traffic at Amsterdam Schiphol and likewise British Airways and Iberia at London Heathrow and AS Madrid-Barajas respectively. We don’t have such an advantage, so the business model of JT Barcelona-El Prat Airport has to be built around attracting different types of carriers and offering our customers something different.”

Explaining a little more, she notes that BCN’s biggest airline, Vueling, operates a comprehensive network across Europe from Barcelona in addition to flights to North Africa and the Middle East.

Indeed, the number of European destinations served by Vueling and other carriers from BCN makes the airport’s traffic mix different to the big hubs and, as a result, arguably makes the gateway easier and more convenient to use for passengers seeking short to mid-haul flights.

“Getting more long-haul routes is one of our goals,” admits Corrochano. “We serve Boston, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the US today and Buenos Aires in Argentina and Santiago in Chile, but because we have no national flag carrier here such as a KLM or Air France, we have to work very hard to get them.”

From a geographical perspective, Corrochano believes that people living in the Balearic Islands are more likely to want to travel to BCN to catch a long-haul flight because Barcelona is easy to get to for them, whereas those living within a 300-kilometre distance of Madrid would probably choose the capital due to the number of high-speed train connections to Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas.

Changing LCC models

For the record, although low-cost carriers are the biggest operators at BCN, she doesn’t consider Vueling to be a traditional LCC, referring to it as “something more in the middle” between a low-cost and a legacy carrier.

She looks upon LEVEL in the same way as the airline, launched as a low-cost long-haul carrier in 2017, has a business model that allows passengers to pay for the services they want, ensuring that they can effectively fly as either a low-cost or legacy carrier passenger. Today it is responsible for a handful of the airport’s international long-haul routes.

Vueling and LEVEL are, of course, also members of the International Airport Group (IAG), along with British Airways and Iberia, so can feed passengers into their long-haul networks from BCN via their London and Madrid flights respectively.

And the other way around, Vueling can offer extremely efficient connections for passengers willing to fly to Barcelona and catch onward flights to numerous mid and long-haul destinations.

“At Barcelona, passengers have a great choice of destinations and have the ability to only pay for the services they want on flights, which I think makes us different to the other airports in OAG’s Top 10 International Megahubs for Europe,” comments Corrochano.

BCN’s recovery from COVID

The 41.6 million passengers (79% of 2019 levels) handled at Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport last year and the 9.9 million to use it in the first quarter of 2023 means that the Catalonian gateway is now firmly on track to match or better the 52.6 million it welcomed in 2019.

In fact, passenger numbers at BCN are already just 5% down on pre-pandemic levels and Corrochano is confident that if load factors remain high, a good summer and the return of Chinese travellers later in the year could lead to traffic numbers being close to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023.

She is nevertheless quick to point out that many airlines now operate very different route networks to the ones that they operated before the pandemic, citing easyJet’s scaling back of services and Norwegian’s decision to scrap long-haul flights altogether as examples of how the market has changed.

From BCN’s perspective, it still lacks some routes and, on certain destinations, the frequencies it had before the pandemic, and Corrochano has no idea if they will ever return. However, new routes to Chicago, Calgary and Tel Aviv this year ensure that the airport continues to look forward to the future with optimism.

Today, domestic services accounts for 29% of BCN’s traffic, European destinations for 60% and international traffic to North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, North and South America for 11%.

Current infrastructure

BCN currently has two terminals and three runways capable of handling up to 55 million passengers annually and 78 aircraft movements per hour.

Opened in 2009, Terminal T1 is equipped to accommodate up to 33mppa, while the older, Terminal T2, can welcome around 22 million and is split into three sections – Terminal 2A, 2B and 2C.

The airport has parallel runways and a 2,540-metre cross runway. The main parallel runways are used for take-off and landings during the day and the cross runway is used at night as it allows approaches from the sea that avoid flying over any neighbouring communities.

The future development of JT Barcelona-El Prat

BCN’s current capacity is fine for now, but with passenger traffic on the rise again and expected to exceed 55mppa within the next five years, operator, Aena, has drafted an expansion plan for the gateway.

BCN will seek to expand the parallel ‘departures’ runway nearest to the sea by 500 metres to 3,160m to allow it to handle flights to Santiago or Los Angeles and other long-haul destinations that currently have to take-off from the 3,352-metre-long ‘arrivals’ runway.

Aena believes that this development, which would allow the airport to handle up to 90 aircraft movements per hour, rising from 78, and a new satellite terminal and enhancements to Terminal 1 would effectively raise BCN’s capacity to 70 million passengers per annum.

Talking about Terminal 1, Corrochano notes: “Areas that limit the capacity in the terminal right now are the security checkpoint and check-in areas, which would both have to be expanded and redesigned to ensure that we can keep up with demand.”

Aena’s international assets

Outside of Spain, Aena’s international subsidiary, Aena Internacional, has interests in 34 airports across Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico and the UK.

In Brazil, through Aena Internacional, it holds a 30-year concession to operate and develop the airports of Recife, Maceió, Aracajú, Campina Grande, João Pessoa and Juazeiro do Norte in the north east of the country and will shortly begin managing São Paulo’s Congonhas Airport and 10 other airports across São Paulo, Mato Grosso do Sul, Minas Gerais and Pará states.

The ten airports comprise Campo Grande Airport; Uberlândia–Tenenete Coronel Aviador César Bombonato Airport; Maestro Wilson Fonseca Airport; João Corrêa da Rocha Airport; Mário Ribeiro Airport; Carajás Airport; Altamira Airport; Mario de Almeida Franco Airport; Corumbá Airport; and Ponta Porã International Airport.

When they officially join its portfolio of airports – Aena was awarded the concession to operate and develop them in August 2022 – its network of 17 Brazilian gateways will make Aena the biggest private airport operator in Brazil, and Corrochano says that the Board’s recent announcement that the company will continue to look abroad for new revenue streams shows that its international ambitions remain high.

In the UK, Aena Internacional currently has a controlling 51% shareholding in London Luton Airport, which is the fifth busiest airport in its global network based on 2019 traffic figures, behind Málaga-Costa del Sol and ahead of Alicante-Elche.

In the Americas it has 37.89% and 50% stakes respectively in Colombia’s Cartagena de Indias (SACSA) and Cali Alfonso Bonilla Aragón (Aerocali) airports; and a 33.3% interest in Aeropuertos Mexicanos del Pacífico (AMP), which operates 12 Mexican gateways that include Tijuana, Guadalajara, Hermosillo, La Paz, San José de Cabo and Puerto Vallarta on behalf of Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacífico (GAP).

And in Jamaica, through AMP’s 17.4% stake in GAP, it has a controlling 74.5% interest in MBJ Airports Limited, which operates Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, and holds a 25 year concession agreement for Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport through GAP.


New technology

She adds that new technology, both for processing passengers in the terminal and making better use of BCN’s runways will also play a significant role in enhancing the operational capacity of the airport.

At BCN and across its airport network, for example, Corrochano says that Aena is actively working to introduce more biometric systems for passengers such as e-gates and self-bag drop technology that will ultimately pave the way for paperless, single-token journeys through its airports.

With this ultimate goal in mind, Aena has staged biometric pilot programmes with Air Europa, Vueling and Iberia and is now in the process of permanently implementing the new technology at BCN and other airports.

With regards to the airfield, new satellite technology utilised by Spanish air navigation service provider, ENAIRE, has paved the way for the introduction of a new departures system at BCN.

Called Brain II, it has redesigned departure flows at BCN by introducing a number of new flight paths for aircraft that are expected to increase operational efficiency and reduce noise disturbance to neighbouring communities.

The new system was introduced in April 2023 and is the second major change to the way aircraft operate at BCN after the decision to reduce the minimum separation distance between arriving aircraft to 2.5 nautical miles in a bid to maximise the efficiency of the airfield.

The decision, taken during the pandemic, requires every aircraft to exit the runway within 50 seconds by following the instructions of ATC staff who guide them to different runway exit points. A similar system is in operation at London Heathrow.

Retail and F&B innovation

At BCN and across its Spanish airport network, Aena continues to innovate and introduce new retail and F&B concepts, the strategy at JT Barcelona-El Prat being to make sure that it has a healthy option of outlets as near as possible to the boarding gates.

This means that it wants the retail and F&B concepts to appeal to a variety of different tastes and budgets as well as reflect a sense of place and feature a number of brands that are familiar with international travellers.

Corrochano admits that changing retail habits globally with an ever-increasing number of consumers buying online, has convinced Aena to up its game and introduce facilities that add to the airport experience and perhaps offer something a little different, such as virtual reality technology, nail bars or the opportunity to play a piano or listen to some live music.

“It’s all about enhancing the airport experience,” enthuses Corrochano, who reveals that the airport recently introduced the possibility for passengers to create their own spaces and subsequently F&B experiences in the international VIP lounge.

The end of the pandemic means that the airport is now planning on resuming a number of sense-of-place initiatives that reflect seasonal events taking place in Barcelona city itself, such as the Sónar festival of dance music in June and collaborations with a local music school and the Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house.

“Events like these really show our connection with the city and leaves passengers in no doubt that they are in Barcelona,” adds Corrochano.

In terms of more traditional shops and F&B outlets, Areas recently opened its Sibarium Delicatessen concept at BCN and Dufry and Rituals Cosmetics officially opened a store earlier this year.

Network wide, Aena recently awarded new duty management concessions for 23 airports spread across four regions to Dufry (Andalusia-Mediterranean), Canariensis (Canary Islands), Dufry (Balearic Islands) and Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and Basque Coutry (Northern Spain).

Corrochano describes some of the proposed new innovations for the duty free shops at the airports in the above mentioned packages as “remarkable”, stating that they will deliver top-quality service and confirm the attractiveness of the business.

With regard to Madrid and Catalonia, Aena has decided to launch a new tender process for the the duty free shops, with the same technical-financial conditions as before and, as a result, is inviting the 13 companies that previously expressed an interest in the contracts to submit new bids.

The expected turnover for the entire bidding process is €18 billion and includes 86 duty-free sales outlets across Aena’s airport network, plus a large number of premises dedicated to other categories.

Aena’s Spanish airport network

There’s no disputing that Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas (MAD), which handled 50.6 million passengers in 2022, and BCN are the jewels in the crown of state-owned Aena’s 46 airports spread across mainland Spain and the Balearic and Canary Islands.

They are the biggest and best-connected airports in Spain, but their heavy reliance on the still recovering international market means that they are now actually the only main airports in Aena’s airport entire network whose passenger numbers have yet to reach pre-COVID levels.

In marked contrast, passenger numbers are booming at the popular tourist destinations of Alicante-Elche Miguel Hernández (ALC), Málaga-Costa del Sol (AGP), Valencia (VLC), Ibiza (IBZ), César Manrique-Lanzarote (ACE), Menorca (MAH) Palma de Mallorca (PMI) and Tenerife Sur (TFS), which are already well above pre-pandemic levels.

In facts and figures, Aena’s Spanish airports handled 77.4 million passengers in the first four months of 2023, 32.7% more than in the same period last year and 1.9% more than in the first four months of 2019.

Between January and April, 695,549 aircraft movements were recorded (1.5% higher than in 2019) and 336,909 tonnes of cargo were transported, which represents 0.1% more compared to the same period of 2019.

Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport recorded the highest number of passengers in April 2023, handling 4.8 million, a 20.6% increase on the corresponding month in 2022 but still 3.6% down on April 2019.

The next busiest airports in April 2023 were Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat with 4.2 million passengers; Palma de Mallorca Airport (2.7 million); Málaga-Costa del Sol Airport (2 million); Alicante-Elche Miguel Hernández (1.4 million), Gran Canaria (1.1 million); and Tenerife Sur (1 million).

Corrochano says: “Our airports are performing really well, which I think is the result of people just wanting to get away after the pandemic. Demand to the Balearic and Canary Islands, in particular, has been incredible.”

Aena’s Strategic Plan 2022-2026

Aena’s Strategic Plan for the period 2022 to 2026 includes projects to enhance the capacity of a number of its Spanish gateways.

These include the expansion of Terminal 4 and its Satellite T4S at AS Madrid-Barajas and, of course, the upgrade of JT Barcelona-El Prat.

Aena is also looking at building more commercial developments at or around Barcelona, Malaga, Seville and Valencia airports for activities such as logistics, mobility and travel and data-driven services in addition to more traditional facilities such as commercial offices and hotels.

It is worth noting that Aena has allocated 32 hectares of land at Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport for logistics usage, of which four hectares are earmarked for green space. Aena has also set aside a further 295 hectares at MAD for further development if required.

“These developments will boost our commercial revenues and hopefully attract new companies to establish headquarters at our airports, which in turn could increase our airline mix and boost passenger numbers,” comments Corrochano.

Aena’s Strategic Plan also outlines the key goals for the group over the next few years covering everything from financial objectives and innovation, technology and digitalisation to the sustainable development of its airports and the path to carbon neutrality.


In terms of sustainability, Aena’s Climate Action Plan includes the commitment to developing solar power installations across its entire airport network as well as stepping up its water recycling efforts.

Aena is the first Spanish company and one of only a few in the world to report annually to its shareholders on the performance of its Climate Action Plan (CAP) as part of Aena’s sustainability strategy.

The CAP entails an investment of €550 million from 2021 to 2030 and its goals are ambitious. They include achieving carbon neutrality by 2026 and net zero emissions at all airports in its network by 2040 – 10 years earlier than the target set by the global aviation industry.

Integrated into its Climate Action Plan, Aena’s Photovoltaic Plan aims to achieve the 100% supply of renewable energy to Aena’s airports by 2026. The proposal is to produce 950 GWh/year of renewable energy per annum, which is equivalent to the consumption of 295,000 homes per year, and will require an investment of more than €350 million.

Aena believes that the plan is unique to the sector both in terms of the power provided by the solar panels and 720 hectare surface area they will cover, effectively making it a European leader in the production of renewable energy at airports.

1 Comment

  1. John Baillie 27th June 2023

    All very well as a nicely constructed PR piece.What has not been addressed is BCN and MAD ‘ s continual poor performance with regard to delay times as compared to other main EU airports.


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