Europe’s Second Largest Airport By Size: Madrid Airport’s History

Officially called Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport (MAD) but more commonly known as Madrid Barajas Airport, this is the main airport serving the Spanish capital of Madrid. Size-wise, Madrid Airport is the second largest in Europe after France’s Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG). Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Madrid Airport handled 61.8 million passengers, making it the busiest airport in Spain and the 22nd busiest globally.

Madrid Airport
In 2019 Madrid Airport was the 6th busiest in the world. Photo: Iberia

Deriving its name from the adjacent Barajas neighborhood, Madrid Airport is located eight miles northeast of the historic Puerta del Sol. Easily accessed from all parts of the city by metro, Madrid Airport is considered the Latin American gateway to Europe. Comprising five terminals, Madrid Airport is the primary hub for Spanish national flag carrier Iberia and fellow IAG-owned airline Air Europa.

The history of Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport (MAD)

Constructed in 1927 on 815 acres of barren land, Madrid Airport provided pilots with an alternative to Getafe and Carabanchel airfields. The airport’s location was chosen because of the excellent road links into the city and the fact that it was close to the main highway linking Spain with France. A large white circle in the center of the airfield with the word Madrid was written to help guide pilots.

On May 15, 1933, the airport officially opened to civilian traffic when a three-engine Fokker VII/3M belonging to Lineas Aéreas Postales Españolas (LAPE) arrived carrying mail from Barcelona. Up until 1940, Madrid Airport was nothing more than a grass field with a small terminal.

The first paved runway, which became operational in 1944, was just under 4,600 feet long and 147 feet wide. By the end of the decade, Madrid Airport had three paved runways, none of which are still there. The 1940s also saw the first regularly scheduled flights between Spain, Latin America, and the Philippines.

Madrid Barjas history
By the 1950s, activity at the airport was in full swing. Photo: Getty Images

By the 1950s, Madrid Airport continued to grow with two additional runways built to support over half a million passengers and a new commercial air service to New York City. A new terminal which is today referred to as Terminal 2, was constructed in 1954.

During the 1960s, Madrid Airport continued to grow in importance, but it was not until the 1970s, and the increase in tourism forced the airport to expand further. With the arrival of large passenger planes like the Boeing 747, Madrid decided to build a new international terminal which today operates as Terminal 1.

Iberia started its no-reservation flights between Madrid and Barcelona

In 1974 Iberia introduced frequent daily airbridge flights between Madrid and Barcelona that operated like a bus service with no prior reservation. Expansion of Madrid Airport and the modernization of Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 happened again in 1982 to accommodate the FIFA World Cup.

Madrid Airport
Madrid Airport has four runways. Photo: Michiel1972 via Wikipedia

In November 1998, Madrid started operations on runway 18R-36L which at 14,435 feet was one of the longest runways in Europe. While growing in passenger numbers, Madrid Airport began constructing two new terminals T4 and a satellite terminal called T4S.

In terms of size, Terminal 4 is one of the largest airport terminals in the world, consisting of the main terminal and a satellite terminal that is primarily used for connecting domestic flights. Through careful use of illumination and glass panels rather than walls, Terminal 4 was designed to give passengers a stress-free start to their journey. Along with the two terminals, two additional runways were added for a total of four, allowing the airport to handle one takeoff or landing every 30 seconds.

Madrid terminals one, two, and three are home to SkyTeam and Star Alliance airlines, while Terminal 4 and Terminal 4S are exclusively used by Iberia and its fellow oneworld alliance partner airlines.

Madrid is looking towards South America

More recently, Spanish airport operator Aena announced that it wants to expand Madrid Airport’s capacity to handle 80 million passengers a year. To achieve this, they have allocated 750 million euros to bridge the gaps between terminal T1, T2, T3, and the much newer Terminal 4. The project is expected to be finished in 2026.

Madrid T4
Terminal T4 is exclusive to Iberia and oneworld partners. Photo: Iberia

As we mentioned earlier, Madrid Airport has always been a gateway for Central and South American passengers arriving in Europe. The plan is to continue down the same road with Iberia and its partner airlines using Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport (MAD) as a significant Europen hub that is a stepping stone to other destinations.

Have you traveled through Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport (MAD)? If so please tell us what you think of the airport in the comments.