A cost-benefit analysis compiled by E-Cubed Islands, a consultancy owned by Bank of Valletta Chairman Gordon Cordina, concluded that the airstrip project in Gozo being proposed by the government would make economic sense despite five companies having folded after investing in an air link between the two islands.
Estimating the total costs of the project to be around €2.5 million, Cordina and co-author Victoria Apap concluded in the study that 100 passengers per day, paying some €30 each way, could make the project economically viable.
Cordina said that according to regional statistics and assumptions, there already is a significant demand for an inter-island air service, which could reach 35,000 passengers a year.
He said the demand would consist of inbound tourism, Gozitans travelling abroad wanting to reach Malta International Airport quicker and Gozitan professionals who want to travel to Malta frequently for work purposes.
The project proposed by the Gozo Ministry consists of rehabilitating the current heliport in Ta’ Lambert, Xewkija, which has been left in a derelict state since 2008 despite several government workers still being assigned to work at the heliport.
Despite promises that the area was to be transformed into a grass airstrip, the project never materialised as it was not deemed to be commercially viable.
Between 1990 and 2008, five different helicopter companies that started direct air link services between Gozo and Luqa all folded due to lack of demand, incurring significant losses.
Yet Cordina’s study is positive – the project being suggested now could make economic sense assuming costs are kept down and the airstrip is also used for general aviation services, such as pilot academies, training and testing of drones.
Before the last general elections, Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri promised a flight connection between the two islands and suggested that the current heliport should be transformed into a short airstrip that could be used by 9-seater passenger planes.
The project, with a preliminary design by Corinthia company QP Management, through a €38,000 direct order, envisages an extension of the current 174m airstrip 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.
In his study, Cordina suggests that the €2.5 million project, which includes the acquisition of three planes, will cost a further €1.2 million a year to run.
The added value generated by the project, including more quality tourism, tax revenue and some 20 additional jobs, makes the project viable and resilient “also to the most extreme shocks that could take place,” according to the study.
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 concrete market research.
“First of all, the study’s valuation of the costs involved in this project are very low, particularly considering that the €2.5 million assumed as total costs also include the acquisition of three planes. This is quite stunning, to say the truth,” a veteran transport expert told The Shift.
“In addition, the demand included in the study is just an assumption that is not based on specific market research. It is difficult to have that demand in Gozo all year round,” he added.
So far, all transport services between Malta and Gozo are loss-making.
While the conventional ferry crossing, operated by state entity Gozo Channel, is registering millions in losses and being kept afloat through government subsidies, a fast ferry private passenger service that started operating last year through two different companies, Virtu Ferries and Gozo Fast Ferry, is also running at a loss.
The cost-benefit analysis carried out by Cordina’s company was commissioned through an €11,500 direct order by the Gozo Ministry.
The Shift has reported that companies partially owned by the Bank of Valletta chairman – E-Cubed Consultants Ltd and E-Cubed Islands Ltd – have raked over €1.4 million in government consultancy contracts since 2013.
Cordina pocketed €90,277 last year from what he describes as a “part-time role for a limited period of engagement” as chairman of Bank of Valletta, according to figures published in the bank’s latest annual report.