An exclusive non-commercial airfield - that is the vision of Clemens Toussaint from Cologne, which has already been partially realized. Petra Hall visited the nearly hundred-year-old Aeroporto with him, which is now well on the way to becoming a viable alternative for private jets on the Riviera. The project, which covers around 100 hectares, should be completed by 2022.
Liguria and the Côte d'Azur: two different worlds and yet so close to each other: by helicopter, a flight from Albenga to Monaco takes approximately 20 minutes, by car it takes almost an hour. This can lead to a fantastic business idea, at least if you are called Clemens Toussaint and have vision, intelligence, willingness to take risks and sensitivity. And, of course, also the necessary means. This man, who is one of the most impressive people I have met in my long career, can shout "Here!
For decades, the Cologne-born art historian, who lives in Monaco, made international headlines as an art investigator. At that time he was intensively engaged in post-war history and returned lost works of art to their owners. "As a German, I felt obliged to do this," he says thoughtfully.
Then a new chapter in his life began: in 2016, local authorities gave Albenga Airport the go-ahead for privatization - the first in Italy. Clemens Toussaint struck a blow, because he clearly saw the opportunity and the considerable development potential: to create an alternative to Nice and Cannes-Mandelieu airports for private jets under the name "Riviera Airport". After all, the airports are bursting at the seams as far as parking space is concerned. "Now I want to create something for the future," says the 58-year-old father of four.
So, with determination, Toussaint, whose name goes back to French ancestors, contacted Nice airport to propose a collaboration. Logical, really. But they slammed the door in his face, so to speak. For almost three years now, he has been litigating with the "Aéroport Nice Côte d'Azur". The object of dispute is the name. It doesn't scare him, he just follows his strategy. After all, Albenga's airport, which until recently was officially called Aeroporto Internazionale Clemente Panero and will celebrate its centenary in 2022, has always been known as the "Riviera Airport" because of its location eight kilometres from the sea.
Clemente Panero (the resemblance to Clemens is purely coincidental...) was a famous fighter pilot of the First World War, the runway at Villanova d'Albenga has been used successively over the years for military, industrial and civil purposes. Today the Riviera Airport is the headquarters of Piaggio Aerospace, the only remaining aircraft manufacturer in Italy. Otherwise, the airport exclusively handles private and business air traffic.
Toussaint loves Liguria: "From Monaco, we went more and more with the family towards Italy, I feel at home there". His airport project is based on the charming contrast to the Côte d'Azur and the owners of private jets should feel this in every detail: no frenzy like at the French airports, the wonderful view of the unspoiled landscape and the authentic life in a region which, according to Clemens Toussaint, "is still today as the Côte was 40 years ago - in short, a place of contemplation. We want an exclusive non-commercial airport with an emphasis on leisure, typical food, music and art - far away from the same anonymous shopping boulevards. We sat on the runway with the Genoese architect Paolo Brescia, student of Renzo Piano and founder of Open Building Research, and said to ourselves: "Unbelievable, we are in an amphitheatre between two rivers. We are following nature. And we take ourselves back."
Toussaint's partially realized visions are consistent: Building materials and colors that harmonize with the area's history, a view of the airport defined by aesthetics. And there he appears again, the passionate art lover. He is thinking of turning the lounge into an exclusive gallery. Contemporary works by famous artists will decorate the walls, the unobstructed view will sweep into nature, high-quality parquet floors will provide a noble ambience - unmistakably inspired by the Swiss Fondation Beyerler, "one of the most beautiful museums in Europe when it comes to architecture. Knowledge and culture earn respect", says the airport owner, "this is the only way to impress your customers today".
In 1980, he spent a year studying in Nice. "The once provincial city has changed completely since then. The social development has Europeanized the Côte and this is due to the golden decision to develop the airport into the second largest in France. The region has become an international centre from which people from all over the world work - not just the so-called rich and beautiful. Nice airport now has almost 15 million passengers a year and the number is set to rise to 30 million! Genoa, on the other hand, speaks of one million passengers".
With such a rapid development, Clemens Toussaint says, there will be limited slots left for private jets on the Côte d'Azur. And there is a great opportunity for his project on the Italian side again. Although no Airbuses can land on the 1459-meter-long and 45-meter-wide runway - almost as large as the runway in London City - it is ideal for private jets up to 60 tons.
"We offer Riviera Airport as a destination airport for those who need to travel between Nice and Genoa," explains Toussaint. "It's a completely different feeling to fly privately. That means: no mass processing, security checks are carried out by Carabinieri, passenger schedules are checked in advance. You don't have to take off your shoes with us, the guests can also go by car directly to the jet and the checks are carried out at the gangway in this case". New hangars, protected from the salty air of the sea, and modern VIP services will complete the range of services in future.
According to Toussaint, more private jet owners live in Monaco than in all of Italy put together. That's why Nice is so crowded. The new marinas in Liguria are also a good example. There are already more yachts there than in Monaco. The saturated industry on the other side of the border is shifting to Italy: more space, better service, cheaper rates.
"Riviera Airport is tailor-made for the French and international market, but brings a lot of positive energy to Liguria. We plan to create about 200 jobs here. Passengers like to combine their arrival with visits to typical restaurants, it is not unusual for them to fall in love with this most beautiful corner of the Riviera Ponente and look for a property".
So far, about ten private jets use the Riviera Airport as their home base. This year the number is expected to double. There are about 2000 aircraft movements per year. For comparison: Cannes has 20,000 ("That's where we want to get to," says Toussaint) and Nice 60,000.
The German entrepreneur gets nostalgic as we drive across the airport grounds and stop at the old control tower in retro style: "A typical restaurant will be built here. While eating, you can watch the planes like when I was a child in Cologne-Wahn". His eyes are shining: "The concession will run until 2034, when all planned investments have been made, it will of course be extended. More and more people are flying; but more and more airports are in deficit, as Albenga used to be. In Italy there are 100 airports, but only fewer than ten are profitable. The others are financed by the taxpayers. The balance sheet of the Riviera Airport will be balanced for the first time next year," says the current sole owner.
In the long term, according to Clemens Toussaint's plans, Albenga is planned to become the airport of Monaco. "That's why I still live in the principality, otherwise I would have moved to Italy long ago".
- Petra Hall