The Malta Independent 22 January 2019, Tuesday

Observations On the two new Gozo air services

Malta Independent Sunday, 20 December 2009, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Two new air services to Gozo were introduced earlier in the year.

Eagle Heli Tours

The service offered by Eagle Associates/Eagle Heli Tours is an air taxi operated by a small Robinson R44 helicopter.

Both the present Robinson R44 or the Bell 206 LongRanger are smaller than the two (certainly more capable) types Helisureste used, which in turn were much smaller than the preceding Russian widebody helicopters. So if there is a market with people ready to pay such fares but proved not big enough to support a 9-14 seat helicopter, a three- or five-seater could survive.

Yet the R44 generally cannot carry normal-sized luggage (only some small items that fit under the seats) – hardly sufficient for holidaymakers. The fare is E105 return.

What one could do is maybe trips to Comino, costing less than a MIA-Gozo run, for people who just look for the special heli and small island experience, as it should add to the exclusivity character.

It will be interesting to see if the Eagle flights from Qawra to Marsa sports ground will be the commercial success announced in some media earlier in the year. On its website, the firm actually has been offering flights to, quote, “some of Malta and Gozo’s fantastic Golf Courses” – wherever this choice of some golf courses might be.

There is also the “Heli trip to Palermo” labelled with ‘info coming soon’. How one wants to compete against Air Malta (Palermo) and Ryanair (Trapani) has yet to be seen.

Thanks to capacity that now matches more the number of people ready to pay such prices, the service might hopefully be maintained. Even so there must be continuous innovation to increase utilization. The small helicopter is yet another activity option for premium tourists and locals, as well as for applications like aerial photos of superyachts and so on.

But for the ordinary three- to five-star Gozo tourist, or Gozitans travelling abroad, there is the cost, perhaps, of a car to deliver standard suitcases...? A Bell 206 with four/five seats and the possibility to take some luggage is no cost-wonder either. This type operates with Air Mauritius for exclusive hotel transfers: 30-minute charters for four passengers cost £500, i.e. E600.

Harbour Air

The 1985 Twin Otter aircraft, which followed the 1960-built Turbo Otter, this summer started an amphibious service from MIA to Mgarr. Apparently the service did not last long.

For the Gozo shuttle, one-way fares were E40 – times two one has E80, add twice E6 airport charge, making it E92 return. This includes 10 kilos baggage, including hand luggage. For any extra kilo one pays E2 per sector.

So if somebody arrived for a holiday with a standard 20-kilo case and 8 kilo hand luggage, that is 18 kilos extra, both ways, makes 36 kilos... times two makes E72... add the E92, resulting in E164 for the MIA-Mgarr return flight.

A floatplane has to land on the sea... no problem in say July and August, but otherwise one has the swell.

Sum up

The extremely low utilization, and, with the floatplane, there is additional salt-water operations (maintenance), which push costs per hour higher than they already are anyway with these types.

For scenic flights, the Eagle helicopter has E125 for the 20-minute and E165 for the 30-minute scenic flight, per person, from MIA. Harbour Air seems a bit cheaper, scenic flights taking off from the magnificent Grand Harbour – plus the exotic floatplane experience.

Reliability and fares/unit costs, particularly when comparing both these key factors to the operations of the Russian widebody helicopters of the 1990s and early 2000s when tens of thousands of tourists were flown to Gozo each year, are clear reasons why airlines linking Malta, or tour operators, cannot market these mini-heli or floatplane flights as feeders.

Fixed-wing land service

Earlier, in this paper, I had surveyed the operations of 19-seat fixed-wing land-based aircraft, which showed the cost and fares of such operations across the EU. As regards the 19-seaters, only a single type, the Czech Let 410/420, proved on a larger scale to offer competitive fares. The Polish-American Sikorsky/PZL M28 Skytruck could be a high-performance alternative with the least runway length requirements (less environmental impact), though so far not really in EU airline service. All international routes beyond a Catania summer service, and even this maybe only with the Let, are bound for commercial failure.

Yet the 6/7-seat Australian-made single-engine Gippsland Airvan, which was designed as low-cost-outback-taxi, could run the Malta-Gozo shuttle at fares slightly below E50 return, assumption based on fares of a Dutch operator, whereas all unsubsidised eight-seat Britten-Norman Islander operations have Helisureste-style fares.

A runway of between 550 and 750 metres could even be made just of grass or gravel. Furthermore, it could even be (partly) constructed cost-neutrally by Maltese and foreign armed forces in a joint exercise, if tarmacked (best) then maybe partly incorporating existing roads, reducing footprint. Commercial grass airstrips do exist in the EU, like in Land’s End in England, while the small airstrips around the Orkneys in Scotland, the Aran Islands in Ireland, or some German islands show the small dimensions/footprint of also gravel/paved runways for such services. Well-organized timing and marketing via the Air Malta sales organisation, tour operator partnerships, Gozitan hotels making special package offers, and a link on the MIA website, make good distribution channels a must.

Also, with all this it is not zero-risk because seat capacity has also to be seen in context of how big the market of tourists going to Gozo actually is due to limited number of international tourists going there – which certainly again interdepends on accessibility: somewhat a vicious circle.

Can it really be great for tourism in Gozo when travellers have to add some four or what hours for the transfer to/from their Gozo accommodation, after/plus already say three hours flight, two or three hours at the departure airport, and maybe two or so hours driving abroad? Furthermore, the trend for shorter stays means that lengthy transfer times are even more of a disadvantage. Check-through possibility, or at least swift handling with DIY transits, is a must. With a more widely affordable fare, higher weather reliability than for example the floatplane, and good distribution channels, it should work.

Beyond doubt, a selling factor of Gozo is what has remained of its ruralness. However, there are clearly many other fields to improve this image than keeping its accessibility for international tourism rather uncompetitive. One also has to consider the small dimensions of a possible runway for such a small shuttle bush-taxi plane.

Generally, one wonders why there is no regular drive-thru (because of ferry luggage hassle) (mini)bus service with priority ferry boarding between at least Rabat/Gozo (or directly tourism centres) and the airport.

One can observe that for Gozo, an island with a relatively strong dependence on tourism, building a 1000m horse race course was deemed to be of higher socio-economic importance and less environmental and cost impact than an equally broad 550-750m runway (the current helicopter one measures 180m) partly incorporating existing minor roads or just a grass airstrip.

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