Humberto Delgado Airport is an international airport serving the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. However, it has reached its maximum capacity, and the country must now consider the construction of a new airfield.
This is not a new discussion. Humberto Delgado Airport (Lisbon’s Airport) was first opened in 1942. In 1969, when Portugal wasn’t yet a democracy, the discussion surrounding the possibility of a new airport in Lisbon was first officially launched, when the Prime Minister at the time, Marcello Caetano, established a committee to develop an expansion project. However, reaching a solution was a lengthy procedure.
In 2008, the Sócrates government presented a project for an airport in Alcochete. This airport would cost approximately 4.9 billion euros and would entirely replace the existing Humberto Delgado Airport, in response to complaints of how this airport was too close to the city and causing excessive noise pollution. However, the project was suspended in 2010 due to the financial crisis.
The next government then started looking for a cheaper alternative: a smaller airport that would complement, not replace, the existing one. Thus, in 2011, the Montijo idea was born.
In January 2017, the current Socialist government introduced a project for the airport in Montijo. The new airfield would increase the number of aircraft movements per hour from 48, solely supported by the Lisbon airport, to 72 movements, taking both airports into account. It will also be able to draw 8 million passengers each year, providing the Portuguese capital with the capacity to annually receive roughly 40 million air travellers.
A study of environmental impact presented by ANA – the Portuguese authority responsible for managing the country’s airports – concluded that the establishment of an airport in Montijo would not have a large environmental impact, although it would induce some territorial changes in the future urban expansion of the area the planes will fly over. APA – the Portuguese Environmental Agency, involved in the elaboration of the study – concluded that a new airport does not constitute a serious threat to birdlife in the surrounding area and acknowledges that future actions may be undertaken in order to minimize those impacts. Also, the study states that birdstrikes (collisions between birds and aeroplanes) are not likely to happen.
For the 94,000 citizens living near the future airport, the study points out that the noise can induce severe exasperation to 12% of the citizens, 17% of them can suffer from moderate exasperation and it can cause sleeping disorders to 3% of the community.
The conclusions of the report didn’t seem to please all specialists. 11 of them presented a study which reveals that in 50 years-time, a significant portion of the landing track will be flooded due to rising sea levels. This study further states that greenhouse gas emissions have been underestimated by the former report. The environmental association ZERO also poses serious doubts in regard to the real impact that the new airport will have in the area’s wildlife, therefore demanding a new environmental evaluation using different techniques in order to better grasp the consequences that the project will have on those natural habitats.
In 2019, the government tried to sign a contract to start construction in Montijo in 2020, but it ran into some legal problems. A government decree from 2007 regarding the construction of airports in Portugal established, among other things, that no airport could be built without the consent of all municipalities affected by it – the ones where the airport was located, the ones the airspace of which would be affected and any others that would suffer environmental impacts.
This raised a problem when several city councils in the south bank refused to give permission to the construction of the airport, citing environmental reasons. The mayors of Moita and Seixal have since headed the campaign against the new airport in Montijo and in favour of the Alcochete solution. The mayors, both members of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), have been accused of rejecting the project for partisan reasons – the Communist Party has long defended the Alcochete alternative, instead of Montijo.
The Minister of Infrastructure, Pedro Nuno Santos, has already stated that the decree could be altered by the government to remove this impediment, but that change could be brought to a vote in Parliament if any party requests it – and the Communist Party is likely to.
Then, the government would have to find a majority in Parliament that would change the decree. The Communist Party, as mentioned above, is opposed to the Montijo solution, and so is the Left Bloc, which also favours Alcochete. The government would then need the support (or at least the abstention) of PSD, the main opposition party. But Rui Rio, leader of PSD, has already stated that his party will not change the law for a specific situation and that the government should follow the law, negotiating with the city councils that raised objections to the airport in Montijo.
Amidst this deadlock, many people have looked for alternatives to the airport in Montijo. Former Prime Minister José Sócrates, in an opinion article in Expresso, argued again for the Alcochete solution developed by his government. He points out that, according to European Union noise and nature conservation regulations, an international airport should not be built too close to a city or next to a protected environmental area. Sócrates further points out that, unlike Montijo, the Alcochete project is already prepared, the environmental impact has been studied, and permission from all city councils affected has been obtained.
In response to the main argument favouring Montijo over Alcochete – the idea that Alcochete is more expensive – Sócrates states that the initial phase of the Alcochete project (which would allow it to complement, not replace, the existing airport) is not significantly more expensive than Montijo. However, he bases these statements about costs on articles written by engineer Matias Ramos, which have never been refuted or confirmed by other sources.
Another airport alternative defended by some, would be to capacitate Beja Airport to serve Lisbon. Beja Airport has no regularly scheduled flights and is mostly used by the Maltese airline Hi Fi to store airplanes, so it is free to receive more flights to Lisbon. It is already fully built, and there are plans to connect it to Lisbon by highway, a car trip that would take around two hours.
Modernising the existing train line between Beja and Lisbon to allow the fastest trains operating in Portugal, the Alfa Pendular, to use it would require a significant investment, but it still wouldn’t be able to make the trip between Lisbon and Beja Airport in less than 85 minutes. This can be compared to the 50-minute train trip from the centre of London to Stansted Airport, for example.
Besides, critics point out that Beja Airport was built with the intention of attracting low cost airlines serving Lisbon and the Algarve, but it never succeeded, and it never had any regularly scheduled services.
Another proposed alternative would be to build an airport in Alverca, in a military aerodrome. This aerodrome served as Portugal’s first airport in the 1930’s, before Humberto Delgado Airport was built. However, adapting it to receive modern airplanes has never been studied, in terms of costs or environmental impact.
So, there seem to be several alternatives to solve the saturation of Lisbon Airport. Their costs, their environmental impact and political circumstances will determine where the new airport in Lisbon will be built, changing the face of the city and the region for decades to come.
Público, Observador, RTP, Jornal de Negócios, Expresso, Diário de Notícias