Cortina: a mountain airport
Paratore & Partners; founder of Italian Aviation Lawyers (IAVL)
Strange is the season where one cannot fly to foreign countries to meet colleagues and friends. Still, the mind flies to cancelled conferences and meetings while we make any possible effort to keep in contact with the members of the Aviation Committee through emails and video calls.
There would be much to say about the developments of the aviation industry caused by the crisis of the current period, for example, in regard to the prospective usage of drones for ‘contactless’ delivery of goods, especially in reference to food products.
Consequently, when Gerard asked our group of IBA friends to write an article, I thought it would be better to talk about future projects instead of projects already in place or under way.
I am currently in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Veneto, Italy, with my laptop connected to the rest of the world, working from home as if I were in Rome. I dreamt about telling the story of the airport of this town known as the ‘Pearl of the Dolomites’: an airport that operated until 1976, but is now closed.
Recent news on future sports events to take place in Cortina d’Ampezzo, namely the World Ski Championship in 2021 and the Winter Olympics in 2026 (which will take place here and in Milan), has sparked a debate on whether or not the airport should be reopened.
There are many mountain airports in the world and, surprisingly, they are among the world’s most dangerous airports. The orography, flows, reduced length, and even slope of the runways represent a considerable challenge for pilots, engines and aircraft.
According to rumour, the airport of Cortina d’Ampezzo, located in the nearby hamlet of Fiames, was closed for the first time due to a lethal accident that occurred on Saturday 11 March 1967, at 1600, involving a de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter 100, operated by Aeralpi. Bad weather and thick fog caused the pilot to lose visual contact with the ground and to collide with one of the first ridges of the mountain ranges of the Alps shortly after the departure from Venice Marco Polo Airport, 54 kilometres away from Cortina d’Ampezzo as the crow flies. Another version of events, provided by the old director of the airport, holds that the reason for its initial abandonment was that the founder and only owner of the airline Aeralpi, the Count Cesare d'Acquarone, was killed in his villa in Acapulco, Mexico, on a tragic day in 1968. The details of this death have not yet been entirely revealed. He had built the Cortina d’Ampezzo airport in 1958; this became fully operative then in 1962.
Aeralpi used to fly its passengers to the most important Italian tourist and business venues on scheduled flights throughout the summer season. The flights connected many Italian cities and tourist locations (Milan, Venice, Verona, Forte dei Marmi, Elba Island, Bastia in Corsica etc) and it was Acquarone’s project to develop international connections. Since some flights were also operated as AZ-coded flights in partnership with Alitalia, the Italian national airline, they hence represent some of the oldest examples of code-sharing agreements in this country. The old brochure informed passengers that ‘Alpine Airports do not allow instrumental flight and, therefore, the “Twin Otter” and the “Skyvan” can fly only in visibility condition.’
However, many eminent passengers nonetheless landed at Cortina D’Ampezzo airport, such as members of the Rothschild family and (allegedly) some of the Savoy royal family, who still wish to ski in ‘their lands,’ even though they were banned from Italy, according to a transitional provision of the Republican Italian Constitution.
Unfortunately, the dramatic event of the Count’s murder dried up the Acquarone family’s financial resources and repelled new investors. The airport was then declassed to the status of airfield and when, during the 1970 s, a group of local entrepreneurs set up a new taxi airline, the following accident that caused the death of six people determined the airport’s final closure.
Had the inexperienced pilot understood on that day (31 May 1976) that no- one could ever take off in such a weather, the LIDI-CDF (ICAO-IATA airport codes) might still be in operation. A strong wind prevented the airplane from taking off and, after two attempts along the runway, it stalled, crashed and caught fire. The survey by the expert witness, appointed by the Court of Belluno in the subsequent criminal proceedings, determined that the exclusive responsibility for the accident lay with the pilot, who had received just 230 hours of training and only three hours on the Cessna Model U-206 (involved in the crash), and with the sole administrator of the airline company. Because of the particular circumstances of that accident, the experienced pilot Filippo Maria Savini, well aware of the orography of the surrounding mountains, has asserted that, with the application of strict flying rules, an airport at Cortina d’Ampezzo might work. Only visual flights under proper visual meteorological conditions would allow a pilot to safely operate the aircraft, as is usually the case in mountain airports.
The Mayor of Cortina d’Ampezzo at the time was exempt from any liability, but the tragedy, the criminal trial and the reports in the media were sufficient to have the airport permanently closed by a decision of the City Hall, which still owns the land and has the last word on the launch of the initiative.
ENAC, the Italian Civil Aviation Authority, has never issued any order to have it closed or flights restricted in the past, but the rules have been changing the way airports and airfields are run. The Technical Oversight Central Director of ENAC, Claudio Eminente, considered the feasibility of a general aviation airport with non-scheduled service or less than 2500 passengers per year, instead of a commercial airport. According to the applicable Italian and European rules, ENAC should assess the financial, economic, and technical sustainability of the project; the safety standards; and the professional and reputational qualifications of the proposing party. In general, the most time-consuming assessments are those concerning environmental impact, compliance with town planning and the risk management plan for all the communities involved. From the airport safety perspective, other than the basic requirements (conditions of infrastructures; local aeronautical information services; fuel services; fire safety plan; firefighting services etc), the specific characteristics of the location also necessitate rigorous evaluation of flight procedures; pilot qualification and experience as mountain pilots; and existing obstacles.
In fact, the runway is 1280 metres long, at an altitude of 1299 metres and just 4.5 kilometres from the city centre. The area is swept by the Föhn, a north Alpine wind strong enough to sometimes block the funicular lift ‘Freccia nel Cielo’ (‘up to Cima Tofana at 3244 metres’). The local winds also change frequently (as was the case for those blowing at the time of the 1976 air crash), making day-to-day operations even more challenging. Additionally, Sas Peron (literally Big Rock) is exactly south of the runway, so that all the flights taking off from there during the 1960s and 1970s had to immediately gain altitude or veer left to avoid it.
Given all of the above, the only passenger aircraft that could make use of the airport were those optimised for short run-ups like the De Havilland Canada DHC6 ‘ Twin Otter ’, the Shorts SC.7 Skyvan I-Tore and the Turbo Pilatus Porters.
At present, if the project promoted by a group of Italian entrepreneurs to reopen the airport is successful, the runway will be extended by about 300 metres and rotated by about one or two degrees to allow Class B aircraft to carry passengers to and from the Dolomites.
The area of Fiames, where the airport is located, is just 4 kilometres from the centre of the town and has strong commercial and leisure appeal. A few days before lockdown, and after five years of suffering cancellations, one of the latest sports events in northern Italy, the Cortina Winter Polo event, took place in an adjacent area. This was the initiative of certain enthusiasts, including myself (I was in charge of the institutional relations with the City Hall), together with the Italian Federation of Equestrian Sport. The Olympic Committee for the 2026 sport events is now proposing the same area to host the Olympic Village.
The Mayor of Cortina, Gianpietro Ghedina, has said that the re-opening of the airport is not strategic for the town and that his team has assessed all the advantages and disadvantages of the idea, including the risks concerning safety, tourism, media, public opinion etc. However, a few years ago, the Governor of Regione Veneto, Luca Zaia, claimed to cultivate an interest in the development of a network that combines small local airports with the international ones of Venice and Verona.
Since 2017, another group of Italian entrepreneurs has been willing to create a new luxury airport area, targeted to high- end passengers, that would benefit the whole Dolomites area. Gherardo Manaigo, President of Cortina Airport, the private company promoting the launch of the new airport, has highlighted the benefits in terms of attraction and convenience for passengers and business traffic, also in view of the sporting events connected to the winter World Championship and the 2026 Olympics. The airport, with its peculiar characteristics, would handle about 20.000 suitable aircraft and 2, 000 helicopters within its flight range. At most, the airport could welcome ten flights per day for 180 days per year. The environmental impact has been assessed in depth by nine professionals, in a study filed with the City Hall.
The larger European private aviation operators also predict the business appeal of the initiative, including Massimiliano Marsico, Vice President at Netjets Italy in Netjets Europe (a sister company of Netjets U S Inc), who is contributing to the evaluation of the project and the overcoming of certain obstacles. The main issue is that the present, short runway only allows for STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft: most private turbofan jet owners cannot use it.
There is the additional downside of having the aircraft necessarily pass over the historic bell tower of the main church of Cortina d’Ampezzo, being the only possible route, and many are more keen to opt for a structured heliport with a connected comfort and welcome area. A heliport with three or four helipads would meet the needs of passengers landing at the main regional airports and then heading to attend the sports events in Cortina d’Ampezzo, with just a 30-minute flight.
In one form or another, it seems that the old dream of flying to Cortina d’Ampezzo, born after the previous Winter Olympics of 1956, can be realised again.
‘Database’ (Aviation Safety Network) https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19670311-0
The verdict was then confirmed by the Court of Appeal of Venice in 1982 and by the Corte di Cassazione in 1984, see StefanoSartini, ‘Un aeroporto a Cortina - IV’ (Manuale di Volvo, 30 July 2013), see www.manualedivolo.it/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1812:un-aeroporto-a-cortina-iv&catid=35:generale&Itemid=57