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  Nr. 152 - Summer 2013
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Come Fly with Me!

by Vicki Preston
* Paros IS getting a new airport, expected to be completed within the next 2-3 years.
* This IS an important development especially for reasons of safety, reliability and improved service, but also economically.
* The old airport site IS NOT suitable for this purpose.
* The project is NOT funded by the EU but from Greek government funds.
* There IS money for the project to be completed - it was secured from the start.
* Large jet airliners will NOT be able to land at the new airport; the runway is not long enough.
* There IS the possibility of extending the runway later, but it seems doubtful that will happen.
* There IS a potential environmental issue with the runoff from the airstrip tarmac polluting nearby beaches and the groundwater. We must ensure that the proper measures are taken to protect the area.
* Work has NOT stopped on the project.

Paros is getting a new airport – a project that many on this island have worked hard to realize over the course of many years. That project finally became a reality when then Minister of Infrastructure & Transport (and former Mayor of Paros) Yiannis Rangoussis signed the decision on the day before his last day in office in November 2011. Since then, speculation, myth and misinformation have been rife on the subject, all kinds of conspiracy theories have sprung up (due mainly to a constant stream of accusations in local media) and it becomes quite a challenge to separate fact from fiction, the ill-intentioned from the misinformed, and those who act in our best interests from those who do not.

Some Parians still seem to harbour considerable bitterness towards our former mayor, born out of a sense of betrayal when he prematurely left office to take up the position of State MP and official spokesman for PASOK under George Papandreou, but also for his role in the PASOK government which first owned up to the massive cooking of the Greek books that had been going on for so many years. It was this government that signed the memorandum with the troika and began the first of the many harsh reforms required to comply with its terms. Some see this as a matter in which Greece had no choice; others as a sacrifice of Greek sovereignty on the altar of European banks and world markets and a failed economic experiment of a common European currency. In any case, the Greek people lost confidence in the PASOK government, which did not survive long enough to show whether they could ultimately manage to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, and Papandreou resigned in November 2011 when a new coalition government was sworn in, leading in turn to a general election in May 2012.

Against that background, and all that has happened since – the relentless demands of austerity policies, corruption and cronyism still apparently as much the order of the day as ever, an ongoing and constant erosion of democratic rights, the election of 18 neo-Nazi MPs to the Greek parliament, and the mindboggling political games and posturing by our ‘leaders’ which illustrate only how much they care about their personal and party profiles and how little they actually care for the country and her people, it’s understandable that trust in government, its agencies and its current and former representatives, is in pretty short supply these days. The entire country seems to be suffering from a kind of stress-induced paranoia, coupled with depression, anger management issues and a host of other symptoms of mental illness. In this climate, outlandish conspiracy theories flourish and bloom, on the national as well as local level.

On the one hand we are told: “This airport is the largest infrastructure project in the island’s history”, “the most important project ever for Paros”, and on the other “It’s a lie, a joke, they’re only pretending to build an airport”, “It’s a scam, just a black hole for money.”, “All they are doing at Voutakos is flattening the ground, that’s all. There’s no money to do any more than build the runway.”... everyone I asked gave me a different answer, and, meanwhile the back-and-forth of accusations and counter-accusations in the local press and blogs continued. “It’s true!”, “It’s a lie!” ,“It’s not a lie!” ,“It’s not true!” 

But what was all the fuss about?, I wondered. Frankly, I failed to understand why the project was always spoken about in such superlative terms by its supporters; it’s not like it is going to make a massive difference to the number of arrivals on Paros by air, so why is it so important? I decided to ask Yiannis Rangoussis to explain it to me – he surely had more reason to sign the order for its construction than simply to fulfil his promise to the Parian people when he left office as our mayor that he would still do “everything he could to ensure the development of our island.”

When trust has broken down, we have to start somewhere to rebuild it. So I am starting here, on this island, with this project, with this person. Cynics may accuse me of naivety, but in the final analysis, I guess I would prefer to be thought a fool than suffer the corrosive effects of cynicism. I expected straight answers from Rangoussis, and I believe I got them. In any case, time will tell.  Either we will have a new airport, or we will not. But first...

..a little historical perspective...

The first airport on Paros, close to the village of Marmara, was constructed for military purposes during the German occupation of the island in WWII; the land was reclaimed by local farmers after the war. Former Mayor Kostas Argouzis told me how, in 1958, plans to build a large NATO military airport in Kambos (close to where the current airport is today) fell through due to local opposition to the project. The airport was instead built in Santorini. Then, in the mid-seventies, four young Parians (known locally as’ the four kappas’), Dimitris Kondylis, Evthymios Kebabis, Yiannis Koliopoulos and Anastasios Kylakos, took the initiative to ensure Paros would get its own airport, and persuaded a landowner in Alyki, Nikolas Pantelaios, to donate the land for a small airport (one of the smallest in Greece). The current airport in Alyki, named after Pantelaios, opened in 1982, its paved runway was constructed in 1985 and it was designated a ‘national airport’ in 1989 following further upgrades and improvements to the facilities.

Plans for a larger airport which would allow direct flights from abroad were begun in the 1990s under Mayor Yiorgos Triandafyllos, continuing under Mayor Kostas Argouzis and the Paros Prefect (‘Eparchos’), Nikos Arkoulis. Those plans were for an airport with a 2,000m runway, capable of handling large international charter flights. A runway of that length was not possible on the site of the existing airport, so the Civil Aviation Authority searched for a suitable new site and the process of the appropriation of 700 stremmata of land near to Voutakos to accommodate it began. Residents of the area again opposed the plans, however, and filed a claim to the Council of State, Greece’s highest court.

Having learned that the Council of State, citing previous ministerial decisions, planned to rule against the airport, the Parian authorities managed at the last minute to get those decisions repealed so that the court was unable to make a definitive decision, the case was dismissed and the matter was left open. The project was then revived under Argouzis some time later with a shorter runway of 1,400m. An important point to note, however, is that the land to be appropriated was still the original 700 stremmata required for a larger airport, so that the possibility of extending the runway length at a later date was not ruled out.

Plans came to a standstill again when local residents asked for an environmental study to be performed to ensure that the Butterfly Valley butterflies would not be endangered by the presence of the new airport. Further efforts were made under Yiannis Rangoussis when he became Mayor in 2003, but by 2011, when he became Minister of Infrastructure & Transport, he discovered (to his surprise, he told us) that, despite the assurances he had been receiving from his predecessor in that ministry, the Paros airport project was stalled, had missed the chance of applying for ESPA (EU) funds (ESPA funding was now only available for extending or improving existing airports, not for new ones), and that nothing could go ahead until specific legislation passed in order for the expropriation of the land to be completed. He managed to get that legislation through parliament in October 2011, just in time to be able to sign the order for the airport project to be funded from the Greek Government Investment Programme before he left office. The contract for the first phase of construction, awarded to the company Prisma Domi, a subsidiary of Intrakat, was signed by the new Minister of Infrastructure & Transport Kostis Hatzidakis on 7 September 2012 and work began on the site (located between the areas of Magganos and Kambos, close to Voutakos) a few months later.

The first phase of the project is for the runway and taxiing apron (due to be completed by September 2014), the next phase (which can proceed in parallel) will include the terminal buildings and control tower. The Civil Aviation Authority (YPA), which has overall responsibility for the project (not the Paros Municipality), has already begun the study for phase two, following which they will issue an invitation to tender for it. Whilst it’s difficult to get anyone to give a hard and fast opinion, current expectations seem to be that, barring any major unforeseen delays, the new airport could be operational sometime in late 2015 or early 2016. Let’s also keep in mind that Greek airports are included in the government’s privatization programme, although smaller airports with low passenger volume such as Paros are not necessarily going to be attractive to private investors.

The relevance of runway length

Currently, with the existing 720/800m runway, planes cannot fly with full capacity due to safety considerations related to weight restrictions. The Olympic Airlines press office explains that the Paros airport is one of the most restricted in Europe because it has such a short, narrow and sloping runway, develops high temperatures in summer and has dangerous obstacles in its vicinity: “The most common reason for boarding denial is due to the MRTW (maximum regulated takeoff weight). Some parameters are standard and calculations can be made before the flight, but some others (temperature and wind) are not and calculations must be made just before departure. Sometimes during the summer period weather conditions in the island and restrictions posed by the airport and/or runways surpass the permissible MRTW. In this case the captain may be forced to deny boarding to passengers for safety reasons.”

Has this ever happened to you?  You have a ticket, but you are refused a seat on the plane even though you know there are several empty seats?  Now you know why – because the temperature and wind on any given day may combine to reduce the MRTW for the only aircraft Olympic have that can service the island, the Bombardier Dash 8 Series 100 with a total capacity of just 39 seats.

Did you notice earlier how I said the runway was 720/800m in length? You might think there is some ambivalence there, and you’d be right. Paros Airport Chief, Konstantinos Leontidis, very kindly explained to me why there are so many discrepancies in the runway length quoted for Paros. The reason is due to the small hill at one end of the airstrip (this is also related to the MRTW). The runway is, indeed, 800m long, but the presence of that little hill means that, depending on the angle of approach or takeoff, up to 80m may be ‘lost’ in order to avoid it!

The new airport, with a 1,400m runway, will no longer have this problem, improving both safety and service. An aviation expert source told us that a runway of 1,400m is also suitable for turbo-prop aircraft such as the ATR 42 (up to 52 seats), ATR 72 (78 seats) and Bombardier Dash 8-400 (78 seats). Smaller jets up to around 100 seats such as the BAe 146 or the Embraer 170 or 190 should also be able to operate on a 1,400m runway. Except for the Dash 8-400, neither Olympic nor Aegean currently have any of these aircraft and major charter companies do not use smaller jet planes, although there may be a few charters to Paros operated with turbo-prop aircraft with 40-80 seats by airlines like Austria’s Tyrolean, which have had services to Paros and Naxos in the past. On its own, this will have little impact in terms of the total number of visitors coming to Paros as there are unlikely to be more than 2-3 flights per week in the peak season.

So this new airport means there will be an increased capacity for domestic flights and passengers to/from Paros, but the new airport cannot accommodate large jet airliners from major charter companies which need a 2,000m runway. This is good news for all those who find the idea of an international airport with a hugely increased capacity something that threatens to forever alter the traditional character of the island.  But it is bad news for those who believe that Paros stands to benefit far more from direct charter flights from abroad than it stands to lose.

So what’s the big deal, exactly?

My first question, then, when I spoke to Yiannis Rangoussis, was why this project is seen as so important for Paros, if it isn’t going to dramatically increase arrivals to the island?

“There are so many reasons why this airport is so important,” he told me, “This is writing history for Paros and the island’s future. First of all are the reasons of safety, then there is the fact that it is only a matter of time before the current airport is no longer viable – at the moment only the Dash 8-100 planes can land on such a short runway, they can’t even fly with full capacity and they are too expensive to run; they are only able to fly here at all because they are subsidized.” (Note too that production of the Dash 8-100 ceased in 2005.)
“Then there is the fact that such a massive infrastructure project, costing over 23 million euros, means that money begins to circulate in the local community and that boosts the local economy. Plus, and this is already happening, simply the expectation that there will be a modern airport means that this fact is used to increase the value of Paros property and businesses. In this way it adds value to the island overall. Then of course there will be income from the profit of the operation of the airport when it is completed.

“This future infrastructure for the island is very necessary. We need an airport that is large enough to bring people easily to their destination and that’s not really the case at the moment. A modern airport caters to medium and high income visitors and upgrades the island, it means more people are able to travel here in spring and autumn, which lengthens the season, creating more jobs.

“One of the main reasons people do not consider having a home on an island is because of insecurity – they are worried about health care and about their safety, whether they can easily come and go. People buy property when they feel safe, and that is something the new airport will offer them – a much better sense of security. They do not feel so secure today because they know that flights can be unreliable and that even if they are booked, weather conditions may prevent them from leaving.”

“While we’re on the subject of insecurity,” I ask, “how can we be so certain that the Greek government is committed to finalizing this project?  I mean this is a country in which anything can happen.  There is so much uncertainty, it’s hard to feel confident about anything these days.”

“The government is obliged to finish the project for a number of reasons. First it has already been announced to airline companies all over the world – companies which make their schedules two or three years in advance, and which are starting to make plans for including Paros. Secondly, stopping this project in the middle would make the government look ridiculous and incompetent. A project of this magnitude just doesn’t get cancelled half way through. It would be completely absurd to stop the project before it is completed.  Can you imagine the kind of article that would be published in the Washington Post or the New York Times about a massive project like this of 23 million euros being started and then cancelled, and how bad the politics of something like that would look, how incompetent that would appear? The government won’t risk that. And if I were not absolutely sure about this, I wouldn’t say it.  It’s not in my character to claim things that I don’t believe will happen. I believe my record speaks for itself in that respect. When I said the air ambulance was going to happen, it did, even though people at the time said it never would.”

“So why do you imagine some people don’t believe this project is going to happen?”, I ask Rangoussis.

“That’s probably better explained by a psychologist than by trying to explain it politically! There is a severe breakdown of trust between government and the people and, as things stand now, I don’t believe it can be fixed; New Democracy doesn’t believe in changing the rules, they are kids of the same system that brought us to this point. So it’s understandable. It’s due to the sudden death of a way of life that doesn’t exist any more. Conspiracy theories grow up where there is no reality check. If there is a reality, then they fade away again.  Although I have to say that it’s kind of like an ‘extreme sport’ on Paros, where some people – even in the face of a reality you can see with your own eyes – still insist on maintaining belief in a conspiracy. The fact is, though, that the funds for the entire project have been secured from the national budget, and the project is going ahead.”

“What about the possibility that the runway might still be extended to take large jets at some future time?”, I ask.

“To make that happen, all the licenses, all the studies, everything, would have to be redone. It would be tantamount to starting again almost from scratch as though we were trying to build a completely new airport. But I want to stress how important it is that the new airport is being built at the same time as limits are set by the General Urban Plan for Paros (‘Geniko Poleodomiko Schedio’) so that we do not end up in the situation, for example, where huge multi-storey hotels are built for low-income mass tourism. This plan is the tool to protect the environment and the island; not just a tool, even, but a weapon in fact. This combination means that we will not make the same mistakes as has happened elsewhere such as in Spain and other Greek islands, where they destroyed their natural environment for the sake of rapid development.”

“And what do you answer to those who say we should have looked at building a hospital to address the island’s serious healthcare shortcomings before thinking about a new airport?”

“Well, apart from the reasons I’ve already given why this project is so important, a new hospital is a totally different matter. It will be almost impossible to realize a full-scale hospital ­– which would require an intensive care ward and a surgery – here on Paros. Even an island the size of Rhodes transfers its patients to Athens.  So a hospital is a dream, it’s only on paper. Our priority, then, should be to ensure that we have reliable and efficient means of transferring patients, through the use of our own air ambulance and the existence of a modern, fully-functioning airport. I had the opportunity to do something about the airport; I took that opportunity.”

An environmental concern

As work progresses on the first phase of the project, it is still on schedule, according to Prisma Domi project engineer Dimitris Skoulaxenos. There is, however, an environmental issue that has been raised by local residents in the Voutakos area as to whether the environmental studies that have been completed for the airport are adequate (the approval dates from 2002), specifically with regards to the rainwater that will run off the tarmac being channelled into the sea. One concerned citizen, Giovanni Morcos, who has owned a home in the area for the past 22 years, wrote last year to Kostis Hatzidakis, Minister of Infrastructure & Transport, asking for his assurance that all proper procedural steps have been followed prior to the start of construction and that the toxic runoff from the new airport will not be permitted to pollute the groundwater or the bays of Voutakos and Kambos.

The Environment Ministry subsequently sent an inspection team in December 2012, which concluded in its report that: “To ensure the protection of the environment, our service believes that the contractor should perform qualitative and quantitative analysis of these pollutants, in cooperation with a certified laboratory of measurements and analyses. Furthermore, our service believes that if the above measurements show the need for further processing of the wastewater, then it should be carried out by a physiochemical processing unit.” The report describes the runoff as likely to be comprised of “residues from leakage of liquid fuels and lubricants... including heavy metals, gasoline, kerosene, toluene, chloromethane and acetone; compounds considered to be particularly dangerous, and some of them, such as gasoline, carcinogenic.”

Eighty Parian citizens then sent a formal letter of complaint to the YPA of the Ministry of Infrastructure & Transport, the responsible ministry and authorities for the environment and to the contractor, Prisma Domi, in February this year, asking for an updated environmental study to be performed in this respect to comply with more recent environmental legislation from 2011, and for work on the airport to be stopped in the meantime. A response to both their letter and to a second letter by Morcos was sent by the YPA at the end of May, confirming that the runoff water will be channeled into Voutakos Bay, but assuring them that it will be properly treated to avoid environmental contamination. Prisma Domi also responded to say that construction is progressing without interruption based on their understanding that all the proper permits have been obtained, work on the project began prior to the expiration of the original environmental approval granted in 2002 and that the application for its renewal was submitted within the legal period of validity (until 31/12/2012).

Morcos says that since the work has already progressed so far, “In my opinion, it would be a greater disaster now if work stopped in the middle of the project and it was never finished. But it will be tragic if proper attention is not paid to the toxic runoff, and alternatives to polluting the groundwater and the sea are not found. You know, there are many runoff management techniques available today, such as basins which allow the runoff to be treated and evaporate instead of causing pollution. This environmental contamination can certainly be avoided.”

One question I didn’t manage to get answered by anyone, though, was what will happen to the old airport once the new one becomes operational. It seems there may not yet be any plans for it. Why not send your ideas and suggestions on a postcard to Christos Vlachoyiannis, Mayor of Paros, Town Hall, Paroikia, 84400 Paros.

For more photographs and video of the work as it progresses, check the site of the official faction of the municipal authority Ενιαίας Κίνησης Πολιτών-Ενότητα για το Μέλλον (United Front of Citizens-United for the Future) at http://eniaia-enotita.blogspot.gr
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