The Malta Independent 16 July 2020, Thursday

Opening the airport without getting swamped

Noel Grima Sunday, 31 May 2020, 08:36 Last update: about 3 months ago

There are maybe other issues that are more important at this time, but certainly what emerges as top topic in people's conversations and online debate is when will the airport re-open?

We should have noticed this earlier but this Covid halt has shown us the absolute importance of the airport in the country.

The ability to travel has become an integral part of our life, with a growing number of Maltese who have grown used to more than one holiday abroad a year.

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The introduction of low cost carriers has completely changed our lifestyle and made holidays more affordable.

This may now change, with fewer routes at first, far higher prices and far more inconvenience with face masks from the time one enters the departure airport till one exits the arrival one.

I am writing rather egoistically but of course the airport is essential for our tourist industry, which has completely collapsed with the closed airport.

There is at present an ongoing controversy between those who choose health first and would prefer to push the airport's reopening till July and those who choose tourism first and who want to open up as soon as June.

There’s no big difference, as one can see, and in my opinion the preparations are still rather late. Then of course, we are not Air Malta only and talks and preparations must be held with the low cost carriers and these things take time.

Essentially, therefore, once our main markets – the UK, Italy, Germany and France – reopen we must follow suit, much as we closed the airport when they closed theirs.

The airport then is not there just for us and for the tourists. There is also business travel, essential to make contacts, get orders and source raw materials. Not everything can be done online.

People need to travel to meet relatives and we must not forget those who maybe have found themselves locked in a souring relationship and forced to stay here. And people also travel for health reasons.

These months of enforced isolation have made us realise the importance of flight connections and this was shown most graphically by the prime minister’s day return to Tripoli. Certain discussions can only be held in person.

There have been many trite comments asking why masks were not used and why quarantine was not observed. This was the first time as far as I could see where a head of government of a European nation travelled abroad during the pandemic.

What is even more important is the substance of what was discussed and above all agreed. I trust these questions will be comprehensibly addressed in the coming days.

As Evarist Bartolo, I believe, has pointed out, a huge proportion of the boat people are economic migrants, fleeing from dire poverty in their country, rather than war or persecution. We must help people who are drowning but no international law obliges us to take economic migrants in.

Having said that, and if we had the land and the resources to do it, there could be a case to be made to offer those who want it, but really want it, training and education to offer them a good start in life.

But for those who clearly show they want an easy life of drinking and shirking work (if not, too, of getting involved with drugs) there is one other use of the airport – deportation.

Finally, this realisation of the importance of the airport should also convince the authorities about the importance of an airport, however small, in Gozo. It’s about time.

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