The airport that wasn't meant to be built

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

The international airport of Palermo (Sicily), located along the coast of Punta Raisi near the city of Cinisi, is the 9th busiest in Italy, by number of passengers that used the facility. Its IATA code is PMO, while its ICAO identification is LICJ. Its history starts in the early 50s when the original airport of Palermo, the Boccadifalco airport, near the city centre, became inadequate to the increasing traffic of passengers, and was requested a bigger airport that could afford daily national and international flights to the main town of Sicily.

At the beginning, two locations were chosen: the zone of Punta Raisi, 35 km from Palermo, and the land between two districts, “Aspra” and “Acqua dei Corsari” in the south area of Palermo. The second choice, at first, seemed to be the most appropriate, because of its proximity to the city and most importantly because it was less prone to the strong gusts of wind that instead were present in Punta Raisi. Even though every technical report said that the zone of Punta Raisi was inappropriate, the airport was built there because of the pressure from mafia boss, Cinisi Gaetano Badalamenti. In 1956 the main project was presented to the Ministry of Transport and it included two parallel paths, the main runway and the taxiway.

The area of Punta Raisi, is between the shore and the mountain of Montagna Longa, subjected to an inevitable flow of winds that makes takeoffs and landings more challenging for pilots, especially when the south-east wind (Scirocco) is blowing. For this reason, after a few months the main runway (3326 meters) was built in 1960 and the competent authorities, chose to build another runway, called the “Transversal runway” long 2068 meters. In order to build the third runway, it was necessary to expropriate a lot of fields next to the airport. After a lot of ups and downs, the transversal runway was finally completed in the early 90s along with the new terminal.

The first flight to land in Palermo, was on 2 January 1960, from Roma Ciampino airport. The pilots applauded the lighting of the airport, but suggested to improve the illumination of the mountain next to it. The presence of the mountain will be crucial in the accident which occurred on 5 May 1972 when Alitalia flight 112 crashed after losing control, touching a ridge of 935 m on Montagna Longa. All the passengers and crew members were killed in the accident. It remained the worst italian aviation disaster for many years until the Milano Linate airport disaster in 2001. It is still a mistery what where the causes of the accident, first the pilots were blamed, but many people among which, Giuseppe Impastato, of Cinisi, blamed the position of the airport, too close to the mountain. Giuseppe Impastato, called “Peppino”, was later killed by the mafia, by order of Gaetano Badalamenti, then sentenced to 45 years of prison for drug trade, presumably using the airport of Punta Raisi to import drugs from the United States to Sicily.

The 1990 World cup was hosted by Italy and Palermo accommodated one of the qualifying rounds. So, the airport was renovated with a newer and bigger terminal and later with a completely new railway connection between Palermo and the airport.

In 2010, flight IV 243 operated by WindJet, ended up on the grass close to the runway following touchdown, during a thunderstorm with strong gusts of wind, luckily causing no fatalities. After this incident the airport was equipped with Wind Shear antennas to prevent any further incident related to strong and sudden gusts of wind.

Nowadays the airport is called “Falcone-Borsellino”, in honor of two famous judges of Palermo killed in 1992 by the mafia, and its 2018 traffic was of 6,5 million passengers, and in 2019 is still growing by almost 15%. In 2012, Volotea chose Palermo as its main hub in the southern Italy, and put 5 of its Boeing 717s at the airport. In 2013, the Falcone-Borsellino airport, became a Ryanair base, after being, for many years, an Alitalia one. This airport is suitable for larger aircraft, such as the Boeing 747 or Airbus A330, and it is linked to more than 20 destinations all over Europe, North Africa and occasionally to the United States. The airport is connected to Palermo by train, bus or taxi and it takes an half hour to reach the city centre.


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