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Letters | Wednesday, 28 October 2009

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A new aerial gateway to Gozo

From 1987 to 2005, anyone who wished to make a quick trip to Gozo from abroad or had an urgent need to visit associates, friends or relatives in Europe, could take advantage of the helicopter service between the islands. For a while it was possible to check baggage through to destination. But financial and economic constraints put an end to the service which was used by up to 50,000 passengers per year.
Helicopter costs soared in comparison to their fixed-wing counterparts and a search was started to find a suitable landing place for small passenger aircraft, capable of carrying up to 19 passengers and baggage. It was felt that the local tourism industry would be badly hit by the lack of a quick, comfortable airlink.
Since 2005, tourism to Gozo has slumped, hotels and restaurants have closed and Gozo companies face difficulties in attracting new investors. There is a consistent demand for this service – by those who need it.
Back in 1968 Malta had a chance to use a new breed of aircraft which had come into service. These small passenger planes could land and take off in short distances. The benefits to offshore island communities were enormous. Not only could passengers be carried in comfort in all weathers, but essential freight operations could be maintained. In addition the aircraft could be pressed into service as border patrols, humanitarian relief and air-sea searches.
The island of Gozo, just five kilometres from mainland Malta, was served by small ferry boats; cars being seldom carried. In 1968 a company was formed to operate an air service between the islands, plans were prepared for an landing place on the site of a wartime airfield and four Britten-Norman Islander aircraft ordered.
A change of government in 1971 caused these plans to be abandoned, the aircraft sold and the company liquidated. A few years later, Malta Air Charter a division of the national carrier, was launched. One of its aims was inter-island travel. It was not until 1987 that this vision became a reality – with helicopters chartered from Eastern-Block companies. The Russian-built Mil-8 machines operated from Luqa Airport to a landing pad in Gozo. A stone hut served as a terminal building. In 1996 the Heliport was upgraded to meet international standards. Now it stands forlornly out of use. So, is there a need for an airlink and who would use it?
Tourism and commerce tend to thrive when a quick and comfortable connection is available between home and holiday or factory and distributor. Gozo needs both industry to re-establish high employment and well-heeled tourists to spend their money here. A thriving tourism industry has many ecological benefits as it brings visitors who may promote ideas they have seen to work abroad to the island.
Who needs and airfield – and who will benefit? There is a 'chicken-and-egg' situation here. If a small, well-regulated airfield were to be built, perhaps using EU Funds under a Regional Expansion plan, the facility would soon attract a number of users. Apart from direct air services to Malta, Sicily and Southern Europe, the facility would be used as part of local flying training schemes, by those families abroad who own their own small plane and to uplift local products directly to the required destination. Every user will bring revenue to this cash-strapped island. The airfield area itself could also be used to grow cereal crops watered by an underground reservoir.
Day-trippers, commuters and those from the mainland are well served by an excellent car ferry. An amphibious float-plane attempts to link the main airport with Mġarr Harbour but has a low acceptance because of low frequency, inability to fly at night, cramped on-board space and limited baggage capacity. Both this and the ferry inhibit the elderly who make up a large proportion of visitors. They would welcome the ease of access on to a small passenger aircraft and the comfort they would provide. I have personal experience of such services in Europe and abroad.
Short-field aircraft are serving offshore communities world-wide. Two operators, one of them Maltese, are ready and willing to operate a modestly priced service. All that is need is a place to land. A group of local businessmen have put forward a plan for a short strip which would take passenger aircraft with a capacity up to 19 passengers. No pure jet operations would be allowed.
As for fears of another concrete jungle in Gozo, no extra buildings will be needed as the existing terminal is suitable. The runway and taxiways will be tarmac surfaced and the narrow over-run strip alongside could be cultivated. Much research has been carried out into regulations, similar facilities abroad and costs. A 700 x 20 metre runway would be sufficient. Presentations have been made to the Prime Minister's staff, Department of Civil Aviation, the Prime Minister, Ministry for Gozo and the Malta Tourism Secretariat. A survey on the website showed considerable approval. A trial has been proposed to a temporary runway within the confines of the existing site. However, after discussions with Aviation specialists and operators it is evident that these plans will cause an increase in cost and flexibility of operation. It is always desirable with any project to use the maxim 'keep it simple, son' (KISS). A 700 metre strip is the safest and has an easy approach path for aircraft.
Detractors point to the damage that could be caused to the environment, archaeological sites that will be destroyed and the use of good agricultural land. All these points have been discussed at length. The sites selected have been carefully chosen to avoid these areas. It is important to conserve all the characteristics of the island, be they ecological, historical, cultural, economical, educational, or aesthetic. One has to remember that, during 1943 the whole area was re-graded by the US Army who built two long wide runways on the site. Experts such as David Trump have identified cart-ruts but these are to the south of the lower rural road. The huge mound of rubbish to the west of the terminal can be cleared and, since the area will only not be incorporated, detailed archaeological studies are possible with volunteers fro Wirt Ghawdex. The site of the proposed runway is in Government ownership and much of it used to dump rubble, especially at the eastern end. There will be no disruption to the horticultural activity in the area and the Fuel truck facility can remain, perhaps to service the aircraft. Since each passenger plane flight may take 2-4 vehicles off the roads, with considerable fewer emissions, this must be seen as a bonus. An aircraft carrying 10 passengers will take 10 minutes for the journey and use one or two engines. Compare that to four or five cars covering the 35 road Km distance taking up to two hours. The area has long been designated for use as an airfield, from the 1968 era through the 1992 Structure Plan and an Eco-report by Dr Raymond Xerri PhD in 2008. Others promote bridges via Comino or a tunnel. Neither of these would improve access time substantially, would cost an enormous amount and would have a devastating affect on the island's environment.
The definitive answer is a new aerial dateway for Gozo. By using the existing Helipad as a terminal apron with a taxiway to a 700 metre long 20 metre wide strip alongside a rural road, small aircraft would be able to fly to and from Gozo well away from residential areas, would cause less noise pollution than a helicopter .



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