Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Gibraltar Opposition view on airport

GIBRALTAR (Panorama, by Dr Joseph Garcia, Opposition member)
It has long been our policy that Gibraltar Airport should be developed further by encouraging flights from regional airports in the United Kingdom. It is why we have always welcomed any move to establish new routes from such airports. This is something that did not require a new air terminal and that certainly did not require a political agreement, an airport deal, with Spain. It is obviously a matter for regret that the Government have taken so long to move in this direction. I remember shortly after I started to shadow tourism that the then Minister came back from a conference saying that he had been in contact with sixteen or seventeen new airlines. However, nothing further was to materialise and the Government stopped attending these conferences completely until a couple of years ago. This change in policy obviously reflected the need to justify the expense of the new air terminal by attracting more business. We will never know what would have happened if this process had been started sooner and independently of the new air terminal. It is likely that Gibraltar would have been in a better position today.>>>

It was therefore interesting to listen to the Minister responsible for aviation on Newswatch when he said recently that the market for Gibraltar was regional airports in the United Kingdom. He added that the wider European market was very difficult as this depended on commercial viability and could take a while. Mr Speaker, if only they had seen the light sooner and not after fifteen years and tens of millions of pounds!


It is a fact, that for most of their term in office from 1996 there have been less air routes to and from Gibraltar airport than there were when they were first elected into Government. In other words there has been little or no growth in terms of air routes over the last 15 years. Indeed, even now in 2011 there are flights to five destinations Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Manchester and Liverpool. There were also five destinations in 1996. We expect there to be six next summer, in 2010, when flights commence to East Midlands Airport. Mr Speaker, there can be no denying that it has been a slow and painful process and that even now there are still no air links between Gibraltar and Morocco or even between Gibraltar and Spain despite the fanfare that greeted the establishment of the route to Madrid in December 2006. This all seems a very distant memory now, Mr Speaker.

Moreover, it is also important to bear in mind that air arrivals fell by 30,000 in 2010. This represents an 18% drop from the 2009 figure and is lower than 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 and 2004. We clearly need to catch up and any movement forward will initially be in order to stand still.

It is obvious, that each and every new airline that increases capacity or routes, as well as any new ones that come in, have rehearsed very carefully the line that their expansion is partly or entirely due to the new air terminal building. The reality of the business world is that they will only come here if they can make money. The primary consideration is the commercial viability of the route and not the size or the scale of the air terminal at the Gibraltar end of that route. Indeed, it was amusing to hear one of these airlines say in November 2010 that their decision to open a new route to Gibraltar had nothing to do with the new air terminal but to change their tune in February 2011 by which time it was described as a great help to their operations. Like I said, Mr Speaker, well rehearsed.

We need routes that will prove to be solid, reliable and there for the future. Flights to Madrid and Barcelona have already proved to be a commercial non-starter. The Madrid route has now been tried by three different airlines. Even the Manchester route has been discontinued two times since 1996. Therefore when the Government make announcements of new routes and new airlines just before a general election, no doubt in part in order to save their political skin and justify the enormous cost of the new air terminal, we should always bear in mind that such routes should endure the test of time.

People fly to a tourist destination for the product, they do not fly there for the air terminal. In other words, I know of nobody who sits down with a tourism brochure or looks at what a destination has to offer on-line and then decides whether to go there or not on the basis of that country’s air terminals. It is simply unrealistic and self-serving to pretend otherwise. Moreover, it is also a mistake to see the terminal as a gateway for tourism to Gibraltar, although there may be a spin-off effect. The fact is that in 2009 no less than 62% of visitor air arrivals went to Spain. In 2010 this went up to 67%. They did not come into Gibraltar, they did not stay in our hotels and did not contribute to our economy in a sigificant manner. There are no indications that this is going to change and the percentage of visitor arrivals going to Spain continues to go up.

Indeed, there is a risk that this percentage will increase even further once the building adjacent to the air terminal has been constructed on the Spanish side. This is because we will then make it easier for air passengers to fly to Gibraltar and then by-pass Gibraltar completely. The irony is that the taxpayer will have paid handsomely to the tune of millions and millions of pounds for this to happen. In this context, more flights, more airlines and more routes will only mean more people flying to Gibraltar in order to go straight to Spain.

Having said all this, the fact is that the air terminal debate has now been overtaken by events to the extent that the building is there and we are now stuck with it whether we like it or not. While it is possible to argue that the old terminal could have done with a facelift, even with an expansion or modernisation, it is a huge leap to go from there to the massive scale and expense of a new terminal at a different location next to the frontier fence.


It is worth pointing out that there were about 130,000 visitor air arrivals last year in 2010. The air terminal at Jerez, for example, handled 1.05 million passengers in 2010 and yet it is proportionately smaller than Gibraltar’s new terminal. The air terminal renovation works there cost 15.8 million euros and it can handle a maximum of 2.8 million passengers annually. We have a terminal designed to handle a maximum of about a million passengers a year in a project that has cost at least four times more.

Moreover, a comparison with a regional airport in the United Kingdom serves as further proof that things could have been done differently or for considerably less money. London Southend is a small regional airport in Essex. In 2008 there were about 48,000 passengers travelling through it and the forecast is that about 1 million are expected to fly in and out of it in 2012, coinciding with the London Olympic Games. The airport is owned by the Stobart Group (a trucking firm). They paid £21 million for it in 2008. The Group has just invested £60 million on a new control tower, a runway extension and a railway station. The £60 million also included, apart from all that I have just read out, the construction of a new air terminal with a capacity to handle AT LEAST 700,000 passengers per year. In Gibraltar the £60 million has barely bought us the terminal alone.

This issue is indeed a matter of judgement and of spending priorities. The present Government have chosen to spend tens of millions of pounds on the terminal and on associated works and relocations. We would have spent a fraction of this amount to improve the existing facility where needed.

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