The Malta Independent 15 April 2024, Monday
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Gozo airstrip - another waste of resources?

Emmanuel J. Galea Sunday, 28 January 2024, 07:59 Last update: about 4 months ago

On Sunday 6 February 2005, just before the local council elections, then Labour Leader Alfred Sant announced that then MEP Joseph Muscat had proposed that the EU allows air services flying fewer than 100,000 passengers per year, such as the one operated between Malta and Gozo, to be eligible for state subsidies. Sant knew that the limited scope of these services did not make them commercially viable.

Muscat’s proposal followed from a decision by the European Court of Justice on the Altmark case on 24 July 2003 regarding a German company offering a regional ferry service. The EU Commission had prepared a policy document which, among other things, proposed that seafaring services carrying fewer than 100,000 passengers per year to and from islands within the EU, could receive subsidies without the respective governments having to notify or ask the EU for permission.

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It aligned seamlessly with the air services framework for Gozo and Malta. In order to make up for its lack of profitability, the service would require government subsidies.

‘Malta Air Charter’ operated a helicopter service to Gozo in 1994. After ten years of mounting losses, the company suspended these services in 2004. Spanish company ‘Heli Sureste’ took over this service but abandoned the route two years later in 2006. Then it was the turn for ‘Harbour Air Malta’ to deploy seaplanes between Malta’s Grand Harbour and Mgarr Gozo between 2007 and 2012. 

The Gozo Tourism Association (GTA) had concerns regarding this service. Being fully aware of the constraints of having such a service financially viable, GTA went one step further. “Private ventures should not be discouraged as long as they do not pose any danger to people or the environment; however, they should not be allowed to replace or divert attention from actual issues. Gozo deserves a sustainable all-weather, year-round air-link, and this is only possible with introducing a fixed-wing operation. The longer the decision to introduce such a service is postponed, the more harm will be inflicted on the tourism industry on Gozo,” the association concluded. Still, GTA never gave a second thought or offered any logical solution from where the financial support is to come for such fixed wing operations.

During a pre-electoral visit to Gozo on 16 February 2013, Joseph Muscat declared an airstrip was not a priority for the party, but that a helicopter service, along with a fast ferry service between Mgarr and Valletta, would be considered. 

This reasoning soon changed after the Labour Party won the election in March that year. Gozo Minister Anton Refalo stated that “the airstrip is now a priority in Labour’s plans for Gozo.” To convince Gozitans even further, Employment Training Corporation (ETC) board chairperson, Alfred Grixti announced that discussions with an Italian company had started on an airlink between Malta, Gozo and Sicily in the presence of the beaming Gozo Minister.

Nine years later, prior to the last general elections, Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri pledged a flight link between the islands and proposed converting the existing heliport into a short runway for 9-seater passenger aircraft. This proposal was nothing more than empty words and spinning. Since helicopters can transport over nine passengers, there was no requirement for an airstrip.

This marked a major change in policy direction. From the trumpeting of the completion of the Gozo Tunnel project–which was also an election pledge to an extended small-fixed wing airfield - this needed more than a couple of mouthfuls to stomach and, above all, digest.

‘Malta Today’ on Sep 2023 commented: “Unfortunately, the reasoning outlined in the Gozo Regional Development Authority (GRDA) strategy document for this major change in policy direction is incomprehensible at the very least downright stupid at most.”

The reconsideration of the tunnel project, according to the GRDA, results from a planned expansion of the Gozo heliport. This is by extending the runway to make it possible for small (9 seater) fixed-wing aircraft to land pending the Planning Authority permit which after all is a mere formality The Ministry for Gozo can then celebrate the launch of an air link between Gozo and Malta. But dear minister, this project is going to be another still-born delivery.

The Minister for Gozo supported this GRDA proposal and stated: “As a government, we have a track record in implementing projects, and as pledged in the electoral manifesto, we are working on this project to enhance Gozo’s connectivity. We believe that this project will help foster a new and sustainable economic niche, creating quality jobs and attracting more high-quality tourism to our shores.” Minister Camilleri forgot the various attempts to have such an air link viable. Only the Gozo Business Chamber (GBC) and The Gozo Tourism Association (GTA) are in favour of such a non-starter money wasting project. They are always urging for the impossible without trying to support their empty pleas with facts and provide us with how this project is to be financed, supported and viable.

First, experience has repeatedly shown that an air ferry service between the islands, such as two helicopter services and a seaplane service, have all been discontinued after some time. These services were not commercially feasible. The cost to operate them was too high and there was no critical mass to enable operators to drive down the price. It will be simply too costly for ordinary workers about €30 one way to take a plane to Malta from Gozo and vice versa. 

Still, GBC and GTA remain the only two Gozitan NGOs supporting the Gozo Minister and in favour of this empty promise. These NGOs are always asking for the impossible, contrary to other experts’ advice. They never support their requests by any a reliable shred of evidence how this project may be financially viable without having the government resorting to subsidies as with Gozo Channel and fast ferry services.

To placate these NGO’s the Ministry for Gozo commissioned ‘E-CUBED Islands’ to prepare “A cost benefit Analysis and Economic Impact assessment for the Airstrip Project on the Island Region of Gozo” This report was completed by Dr Gordon Cordina and Ms Victoria Apap in February 2022.

This report accommodates to the format that The Ministry may have provided the recommendations section and ‘E-Cubed Islands’ filled in the remaining details. The only sensible fact of this report is the cost of €11,500 by direct order.

Meanwhile, the Ministry forked out also a €38,000 direct order for a preliminary design by Corinthia company QP Management. This design envisaged an extension of the current 174m airstrip at Ta Lambert Xewkija to reach 450m and the creation of some four aprons to serve as parking for small planes and the air ambulance helicopter service already in place.

Transport industry sources who spoke to ‘The Shift’ poured cold water on the study’s conclusions, suggesting that “much of it is based on assumptions rather than specific market research.” 

Besides, the report is assuming the total number of passengers travelling between Gozo and Malta in one day is about 193, equivalent to 97 single way passengers per day. This is sheer fantasy. It is really ambitious to have that demand in Gozo all year round. Even more, the estimated cost of renovation and upgrade of the airfield is about €1.6 million. The estimate of the acquisition of three aircraft (propellor or jet) is €861,000. Quite a bargain! 

History has proved to us that any air connection between Malta and Gozo is bound to fail, as the helicopter service and seaplane did in the past. This is simply because the numbers do not add up to make it all worth it. So why are we blindfoldedly promoting a project that is doomed to fail? 

It may be appropriate for the GBC and GTA to consider, “why should we misuse these millions in a venture that we already know will fail?” And then, when it does, are these NGOs expecting the government to subsidise it? Same as with Gozo Channel and fast ferry service. Are these NGOs aware that this may become yet another burden on the taxpayer?

Former Prime Minister Alfred Sant once commented on Facebook “More countryside in Gozo will be eaten up and destroyed, so that after the project collapses, it is replaced by residential and commercial blocks with developers then going to other agricultural land in the vicinity.”

I sincerely hope that this air link project is not simply camouflaging the actual intention behind the government’s plan — that to allow development to take place in what is now land, which is free of buildings and mostly agricultural. Undoubtedly, there will be more greedy developers interested in such a destructive project than this hollow proposal.

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