By Karl Schembri
Malta and Gozo now have a new helicopter service connecting them after the state-subsidised Malta Air Charters service was brought to a halt last year.
Spanish company Helicopteros del Sureste flew its first helicopter flight between the islands yesterday, with Competitiveness Minister Censu Galea and Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono aboard.
“We’re here, as promised, and we hope to remain for a very long time,” Spanish Operations Manager Antonio Martinez Garcia said to journalists after the craft landed in Xewkija.
The 10-minute trip from the Gudja airport to the Gozitan heliport is much costlier than the previous service at Lm50 per return ticket for non-residents and Lm26 for residents, but the company and government are insisting on quality and security.
In fact, the Bell 412 helicopters, capable of carrying 13 passengers, inspire much more confidence than the previous craft used by Air Malta. Passengers can also transport up to 20 kilos of luggage each.
Asked whether he really thought anyone would buy a Lm50 ticket to Gozo, especially when low cost airlines were being attracted to Malta, Garcia said: “Someone has already paid for it, so, yes.”
The company has bookings to start carrying passengers from the coming weekend and intends operating 20 daily flights in summer and eight daily flights in winter.
“This is the right price for the right service,” Garcia said. “You cannot compare it to low cost airlines. Helicopters have high maintenance costs.”
The agreement signed between Helicopteros and government covers five years of operations. According to Garcia, for the service to be feasible it needs to transport 40,000 passengers a year.
Whether this number will be met depends much on the tourists that will be attracted to Malta as from this summer. They are the main targets of Helicopteros’ new service.
“If nobody’s flying it would make no sense to remain,” Garcia said. “We would have to go. But we are willing to adjust to the market. Gozo deserves tourism of quality, it’s not a mass tourism destination, and that’s the client we have in mind.”
His company is used to smaller niche markets abroad, Garcia said, and by those standards he does not consider Malta to be a small market.
“Fares aren’t cheap but it is clear this service will be in demand,” the Gozo Minister said. “Customers will be paying for a good quality service, and security should never be a problem with these helicopters. The more we market this service the more successful it will be.”
The company has a fleet of 55 helicopters and is also interested in exploring possibilities of operating to Sicily and Libya.
“It’s a very flexible and practical company,” minister Galea said. “With their fleet, they are able to offer a good-quality and reliable service and bring over helicopters according to need.”
He said other companies that were interested in offering the service but only if subsidised were demanding more than Lm100,000 per month from the government.
He also called on tour operators and Gozitan hoteliers to co-operate so that the new service becomes a success.
“I can’t understand why they are criticising this service when they are negotiating with the same companies to get advantageous tourist packages for their clients at lower prices,” Galea said. “I don’t know what their agenda is. This service is primarily for the tourist sector. If we want Gozo as a destination of quality tourism then this service should be welcomed.”
Garcia said Helicopteros was also willing to offer emergency services from Cirkewwa whenever the ferry could not operate because of bad weather, with reduced prices set to be at around Lm8.