Gibraltar, ‘the Cradle of History’, universally known as ‘The Rock,’ is one of the two ‘Pillars of Hercules,’ guarding the entrance to the western Mediterranean. Located at the very tip of southern Spain, the territory was ceded to Great Britain under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Today, Gibraltar offers a little slice of Britain on mainland Europe, relying upon tourism, the financial services industry and offshore gaming for its livelihood. Whilst the overwhelming majority of the 30,000 strong population has expressed a clear desire to retain the links with Britain, Spain continues to press its claim to full sovereignty over the Rock. This territorial dispute, which culminated in the complete closure of the land frontier by Spain from 1969 to 1985, remains the defining factor in civil and military air operations from Gibraltar.
North Front airport (GIB/LXGB), located just 1km from the city, gives a whole new meaning to the concept of convenient downtown terminals. Indeed, the only road from the territory to the frontier crosses the runway and quite obviously has to be closed during each aircraft movement! The airport is built on an isthmus of land between The Rock and the international frontier. Located on the site of Gibraltar’s racecourse, the field received its first tarmac surface in 1939. The runway was extended to its current length of 6,000ft in 1942 by extending west into the Bay of Algeciras using stone blasted from tunnels within The Rock. The singular reason for the construction of the airfield was strategic. The Rock’s prime location made it a vital military base during World War II, a role that continued throughout the Cold War. In 1947 the airfield was converted to joint military and civilian use, with the RAF retaining responsibility for most day to day operations including ATC.
The runway (09/27) poses unique challenges to pilots and offers airline passengers more than a few thrills. Gibraltar’s topography causes unpredictable and often extreme air currents as the prevailing wind hits The Rock. In winter particularly, flights are frequently diverted to Málaga when strong winds close the airport, with hapless passengers having to make the journey to Gibraltar by coach. The runway extended into the sea proves a magnet for seabirds added to the constant risk from high masted commercial and private shipping. In addition, the presence of the road creates serious security and logistical concerns. From the passenger’s point of view, landings can often be the closest one can get to the feeling of arriving on the deck of an aircraft carrier! From 1967 pilots were restricted from over-flying Spanish territory whilst operating into the airport. In practical terms this meant that aircraft landing from the west needed to approach the Rock from the south and undertake a 90 degree turn to line up with the runway. Departures to the west had to make the same sharp manoeuvre. Whilst affording spectacular views of The Rock and close encounters with huge oil tankers waiting in the bay to disgorge their cargoes, this restriction made for some ‘interesting’ crosswind approaches! Following a tripartite agreement between the Gibraltar, the UK and Spain in 2006, this restriction was to an extent eased for commercial operators although approaches to The Rock retain the potential to provide white knuckle excitement.
Until its purchase by easyJet became effective in 2008, the dominant force in airline operations to Gibraltar was GB Airways. Latterly the largest franchisee for British Airways, GB Airways could trace its beginning to short-lived operations as Gibraltar Airways in 1931 using 6-seat Saunders-Roe A21 Windhover flying boats to Tangier in Morocco. This 46 mile segment was the world’s shortest intercontinental scheduled flight and remained in the timetable until the late 1990s. Formed as an offshoot of the Gibraltar based MH Bland Group of companies, Gibraltar Airways operated as agent for BOAC until it began its own fixed wing operations as Gibair in 1947 using Dragon Rapide aircraft on four daily feeder services to Morocco. These lifeline operations continued throughout the closure of the frontier with Spain and utilised classic equipment such as the DC3 (most notably G-AMFV from 1963-1970) and Viscount (G-BBVH from 1970 to 1988). The last aircraft dedicated to these routes and based in Gibraltar was a BN Trislander (G-OCTA). With its departure from the fleet in 1991, Gibair became an exclusively B737 operator. The 10 minute flight to Tangier by Boeing 737 was reduced to just two weekly weekend flights as a continuation of a service from London Gatwick and finally ceased in the late ‘90s. From 1946 to 1975, BEA was responsible for maintaining the link to London using, in succession, Vickers Viking, Viscount, Vanguard, Comet 4 and Trident aircraft. Initial flights operated from Northolt via stops in Bordeaux and Madrid.
In 1975 Gibair commenced its own thrice weekly flights to London Heathrow using Tridents leased from BEA. In 1979 these were replaced by Boeing 737-200s leased this time from Britannia Airways with flights switching to London Gatwick. In the same year the airline’s name was changed to GB Airways to better reflect the wider nature of its services and to link its operation in the minds of the travelling public to the UK rather than Gibraltar. Subsequent Boeing 737s were leased from Air Europe and British Airways. In order to expand its operations and route network, in 1989 the airline transferred its administrative and operational base to London Gatwick. In 1995 the airline added Boeing 737-400s, became a British Airways franchise operator, painted its fleet in BA colours and offered the in-flight product of the national carrier. In May 2000, the airline received its first A320 and at the time of its sale to easyJet, the airline boasted an all Airbus fleet of 10 A320s and 6 A321s. As a franchisee, GB Airways operated British Airways services from both Gatwick and Manchester. These flights served points throughout the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands and North Africa whilst maintaining the historical link to from London to Gibraltar.
In 2008, Gibraltar airport saw 1,972 civilian movements and a total of 371,000 passengers, of whom 361,500 were flying to or from the UK. By no stretch of the imagination could current operations at Gibraltar airport be described as frenetic. It is quite common for the ramp to be completely empty for large portions of the day. For the summer of 2010 there are just 41 weekly scheduled services. In the 1980s regular charter flights were operated by Air Europe among others but such services are now rare and seem limited to those transporting ship crews or occasional cruise ship passengers. Executive movements are increasing and can be quite frequent during major golf tournaments at the nearby Valderrama course in Spain. In 2008 local businessmen founded GibJets, a Gibraltar based corporate charter service in co-operation with an established Málaga based operator. The airport also occasionally witnesses aircraft on delivery staging through for fuel or for completion of ownership paperwork. Early in 2005, the arrival from Brazil of two LOT Embraer EMB-170 aircraft was a case in point. The days of frequent military movements are long gone and only occasional visits are now paid by UK, Moroccan and NATO transport aircraft along with periodic exercises by combat types.
A very significant number of airline passengers using Gibraltar airport are actually travelling from or to destinations in southern Spain. To tourists and residents of the western Costa del Sol and Costa de la Luz, Gibraltar is far more convenient than Málaga or Jerez de la Frontera. It was argued during the 1980s and 1990s by both politicians and tourism authorities that Gibraltar airport could satisfy a significant market for flights to other destinations in wider Europe and particularly within the Iberian Peninsula. In order to achieve this goal it was argued that an agreement would need to be reached with Spain to allow such services and that the airport infrastructure would need to be updated. Madrid had been an intermediate stop on flights to London operated by BEA from the late 1940s and indeed strangely the Spanish capital continued to be served by BEA (and later British Airways) from The Rock until 1979, ten years after the land frontier had been closed. In 1986 an agreement was drafted which would allow Spain to share the use of the airport and participate in the control of local airspace. The proposal was deeply unpopular and was never implemented. For the next twenty years Spanish operating restrictions were to cause major headaches for airlines flying to Gibraltar. For example, in the event of poor visibility in Gibraltar aircraft diverting to Málaga were forbidden from flying direct to The Rock when conditions improved. They would have had to return to the UK from Málaga or would have required an additional landing in Tangier before setting down in Gibraltar.
The sovereignty dispute over Gibraltar raises formidable passions on both sides of the argument (and indeed the frontier) and it is for this reason that the negotiations started in 1986 finally came to fruition twenty years later. On September 18 2006, as part of a tripartite agreement signed in Córdoba, the governments of Gibraltar, the UK and Spain decided to put the sovereignty issue to one side and to implement improved cross-border relations through a number of practical measures. The most notable of these was Spain’s agreement to lift its objections to the operation of commercial flights between Gibraltar and EU airports. At the same time operational rules limiting access over Spanish airspace were also relaxed. Under a complex logistical solution which used Geneva airport as a model, it was agreed that passengers travelling to The Rock’s airport from Madrid or other Spanish destinations to Spain would not have to clear customs and immigration controls in Gibraltar and would be treated as arriving within the Schengen area. As an interim measure, a bus connection for these passengers was provided to the bus terminus in La Línea de la Concepción on the Spanish side of the frontier.
On Saturday 16 December 2006, Iberia Airbus A319 EC-JXJ ‘Ciudad de Baeza’ touched down in Gibraltar after operating the airline’s historic inaugural flight from Madrid Barajas. This practical demonstration of the agreement reached in Córdoba made headlines around the world, many provided by the journalists who made up the majority of the first flight’s passenger load. The aircraft and dignitaries from the UK and Spain were greeted by Gibraltar’s Chief Minister and huge crowds of onlookers and international media. Just fifteen minutes before the arrival of the Iberia flight, a GB Airways A320 departed on a commemorative service to the Spanish capital. This initial excitement and hope was to be relatively short-lived however. Iberia started operations with a daily lunchtime A319 flight from Madrid. Sadly, this was reduced to just two weekly flights from late October 2007 and the service ceased altogether at the end of September 2008. The airline cited lack of demand for its withdrawal. The GB Airways operation on the route was even less enduring, with flights operating between 01 May and 30 September 2007.
With an agreement with Spain in place, Gibraltar’s government announced in May 2007 that the airport’s terminal would be replaced along with the construction of a new road tunnel at the eastern end of the runway. It had long been argued that the airport’s existing terminal and infrastructure were inadequate for planned traffic increases and to attract new operators to Gibraltar. The current terminal offers a small number of check-in desks, two gates and a single baggage carousel. The departure area can seem full to bursting when two flights are scheduled at the same time. The new two storey terminal, due to open in late 2010 or 2011, will enable the airport to handle up to one million passengers per annum. In addition to offering four departure gates and three baggage carousels, the terminal will have an area four times that of the current building and will also boast a new multi-storey car park for 220 vehicles. To satisfy the requirements of the Córdoba agreement, the terminal has also been designed to ‘straddle’ the new roads with construction being made up to the frontier fence allowing direct access for Schengen passengers travelling on flights to points in Spain. The new road tunnel will speed the flow of traffic to and from the frontier as it will no longer be subjected to closures during runway use. Pedestrians however will continue to enjoy the unusual views as they cross the runway (in between aircraft movements!)
For much of early 2007, much publicity surrounded the proposed launch of low cost flights by a local airline, Fly Gibraltar. The company announced detailed plans to start flights using Boeing 737-300s leased from Astraeus Airlines to points in the UK and Ireland. Unfortunately, this operation faltered due to problems of securing investment for the project. With the substantial investment involved in the construction of a much larger new terminal, there is political pressure on Gibraltar’s government to justify expenditure by attracting new operators to the airport. For many years, high landing charges in Gibraltar were cited as a disincentive for airlines to start new routes. These charges have been revised and it is understood that a number of carriers remain in discussion with the government over possible services.
For reasons of geography, weather and politics, commercial aviation in Gibraltar is presented with a unique operating environment. Historical and current airline operations reflect Gibraltar’s ties to Britain and relations with Spain. Recent years have seen concrete agreements which have allowed operations to develop. 2010/11 will see the opening of a new airport terminal and substantially improved infrastructure. As was shown in 2006, the eyes of the world can be easily focussed on The Rock. With continuing claims of sovereignty by Spain having been put aside but not forgotten, it is clear that those eyes will continue to return to Gibraltar and its airport over the years to come.
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