The Malta Independent 19 May 2022, Thursday

TMID Editorial - Gozo and the airfield: A question of viability

Saturday, 14 May 2022, 09:53 Last update: about 5 days ago

The issue of connectivity between Malta and Gozo has once again been put on the agenda by the government, with a new idea – that of an airfield – being announced last week.

The runway will be built in Xewkija on land which will adjoin to the already existing helipad.  The land in question isn’t agricultural and is within the development zone.  It will be around 450 metres long and will cater for small aircraft which can carry up to 11 passengers.

The government is seeking to operate the airfield through public-private partnerships.  The airfield will not operate any international flights – meaning that the only commercial flights in and out will be to the Malta International Airport in Luqa.

Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri said that the airfield would provide new business opportunities in terms of flight schools, pilot training academies, and industrial drone testing as well.

It is far from the first time that attempts have been made for air connectivity to Gozo.

A helicopter service between Malta and Gozo lasted just 18 months, after the Spanish company which operated it shut up shop in 2006.  A seaplane service, which operated between Mgarr Harbour and Valletta’s Grand Harbour lasted considerably longer – between 2007 and 2012 – but ultimately met the same fate as the helicopter.

It is perhaps for that reason, that there have been some sceptical reactions surrounding the idea of expanding the heliport to an airfield.  Amongst those who were unconvinced about the idea is former Prime Minister and current Labour MEP Alfred Sant.

"I remain unconvinced by the proposal for Gozo to develop an airport able to receive arrivals of planes from Malta carrying up to 11 passengers. That same load can be carried by a reasonably sized helicopter," he wrote in his bi-weekly column on The Malta Independent earlier this week.

At its core, the idea of an airfield in Gozo as presented is probably the most commercially viable air connectivity facility that one could build. 

This is on the simple basis that a small airfield can host industries and businesses beyond simply flying between Malta and Gozo.  Malta remains a hub for aviation, with multiple flight schools based at the Malta International Airport.  There is the possibility that such schools or new schools are attracted to an altogether quieter facility in Gozo.

However one cannot avoid thinking of the economies of scale of the project.  Does an island of Gozo’s size need an airfield?  Realistically, will a commercial island-hopping service between Malta and Gozo be financially viable for any operator?  Yes, perhaps tourists who want to see Gozo – and just Gozo – would be attracted to such a service as a matter of pure convenience, but would the number of tourists in this regard be enough to sustain the service?

This is not to mention the environmental considerations of such a project.  Yes, the project will not be taking up agricultural land – which in itself is a welcome change of tack from some of the government’s other projects (yes, we’re looking at you Infrastructure Malta) – but there are other things to consider.

The increase in noise levels as a result of the aircraft coming and going is one such matter, as is the increase in traffic around that general area as a result of the project.

A public consultation is currently taking place and will continue to take place until the end of this month, but there also need to be the necessary environmental impact assessments before giving this project the green light.

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