Spain’s El Clásico battle spreads from the football pitch to international airports

The La Liga rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid is one of the fiercest in world football. The two teams dominate in the domestic league and are among the biggest players on the European stage. But this is increasingly spreading outside of the sporting arena and into other areas, including air transportation as Madrid and Barcelona international airports fight for new business.

The rivalry between the two cities has roots in the traditional standing of the two provinces politically. Madrid, as the capital of Spain and the seat of the royal family, was seen as the region promoting conservatism. Barcelona, as the capital of Catalonia, was the district which was at the forefront of ushering in the modern era in everything – fashion, republicanism etc.

On the football pitch, since the Spanish La Liga’s inception in 1929 only nine teams have won the championship. In fact in its 86 years of competition Spain’s big two have been the winners on a combined 57 times (Real Madrid 33 and Barcelona 24) and have dominated and Atlético Madrid’s success in 2013/2014 was the first title in ten years that Real Madrid or Barcelona had not won.

In terms of air connectivity Madrid’s Barajas Airport has been Spain’s principal gateway, but thanks to the emergence of the low-cost sector in Europe and the appeal of Barcelona both for business and leisure travel, El Prat Airport in Catalonian capital has narrowed that gap. Over the past ten years the gap between the two airports has reduced by around three quarters from around 14 million seats to less than four million for four of the last five years.

CHART – Year-on-Year capacity change variance for Barcelona and Madrid airports over the past ten years shows the growth of the Catalonian facilitySource: The Blue Swan Daily and OAG

The Blue Swan Daily analysis of OAG schedule data shows that for a second consecutive year the international airport of Barcelona will grow at a faster rate than Madrid in 2017: following a 9.9% rise in 2016 with a 7.3% increase this year. In comparison Madrid has grown at a stable rate of 5.3% and 5.4% over the two consecutive years, respectively.

These two cities remain very different and tough to compare. From Madrid’s monumental architecture to Gaudi’s fanciful works of art in Barcelona they have their own appeal and that is also evident when you look more closely at air travel dynamics at the cities’ airports. In Madrid operations are dominated by the hub operation of national carrier Iberia and the short- and long-haul activities at Air Europa. In Barcelona the LCCs reign with Vueling, Ryanair and easyJet the top three carriers in terms of capacity and Norwegian quickly growing.

But while Madrid remains Spain’s largest airport in terms of available capacity and passengers, Barcelona has already overtaken in terms of non-stop destinations served (202 versus 196) for the current week, according to CAPA – Centre for Aviation. In fact, Barcelona is actually linked to more domestic points than Madrid (28 versus 27) and has a slightly greater domestic capacity share, despite the latter’s Iberia hub structure.

Barcelona may be linked to more places than Madrid, but its network is short-haul centric with two thirds of those destinations in Europe. At Madrid the European network accounts for just over half of the destination served, with the main difference being the Latin America market where Barcelona is linked to five points and Madrid to 28.

The nature of the two markets means that Barcelona will likely increase the gap with Madrid in terms of markets served, but for now, at least, Madrid can continue to call itself home to Spain’s number one airport. A similar situation to the cities’ two great footballing teams with Real Madrid currently the reigning La Liga Champions.

CHART – While Madrid Barajas has seen capacity growth over each of the past five years, Barcelona El Prat has been expanding at a faster rateSource: The Blue Swan Daily and OAG