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Met Office strike closes Gib airport, causing disruption for hundreds of passengers

Photos by Johnny Bugeja

Air passengers travelling through Gibraltar International Airport faced disruption on Wednesday after a one-day strike at the Met Office led to multiple flight cancellations and diversions.

The Met Office provides weather information for the safe operation of the airport and despite the strike being announced some days ago, no cover was in place.

A total of 10 flights to and from Gibraltar were impacted by the strike, which affected not just Gibraltar but all Met Office sites in the UK.

Three flights diverted to Malaga, while the remaining seven were cancelled outright leaving passengers stranded.

“The Government is extremely disappointed that Gibraltar airport has had to close today because the Met Office, which contracts its services to the Ministry of Defence, is unable to perform owing to a strike in the United Kingdom,” a spokesperson for No.6 Convent Place told this newspaper.

“This will cause unnecessary disruption to many passengers.”

“Last time, the Met Office sent personnel from UK to ensure that the airport could continue operating through the strike action.”

“The Government has been advised that on this occasion the Met Office have informed the RAF Station Commander that they are not able to send anyone to provide the cover.”

The MoD told the Chronicle it had tried to ensure cover was in place, much as had occurred on March 15 during an earlier strike.

On that occasion, the airport was able to continue to function as normal.

This time round, however, no cover was available because all available resources were focused on larger UK airports.

"The list of airfields exempted from strike action did not include Heathrow on this occasion and the Met Office prioritised the support necessary to keep Heathrow open," an MoD spokesperson told the Chronicle.

The MoD spokesperson said there were no qualified personnel available to provide the essential service in Gibraltar.

"Met Office staff are fundamental to safe operations on any airfield,” the spokesperson said.

“Recent events such as localised fog, strong winds and turbulence have exemplified the potential instability of local weather conditions.”

"It is not possible to provide a safe service without trained and experienced Met staff to interpret and forecast the possible impact of this on flying activity."

"Whilst the diversion or cancellation of aircraft is of course regrettable, RAF Gibraltar will always prioritise the safety of all airport users."

"Timely and accurate meteorological information is crucial to the safe conduct of flights."

Staff at the Met Office are represented by the Prospect Trade Union, which called the UK-wide one-day strike over pay and changes to employment terms.

"The Met Office has detailed plans to minimise disruption, maintain our most critical safety of life services and get our services back to normal as soon as possible so that people can make better decisions to stay safe," the union said.

Those plans did not include the Rock, however, with hundreds of passengers being affected by the day-long strike.

On Wednesday two plane loads of passengers from both Gatwick and Heathrow were hit by the action, as were those on a plane from Manchester.

The first three flights of the day landed in Malaga, with passengers bussed to the Rock.

However, instead of bussing passengers up from Gibraltar to Malaga for the return leg to the UK leg, the airlines decided to cancel flights.

“Due to strike action today by Met Office workers at Gibraltar airport, airlines are currently experiencing disruption to their flying programmes,” a spokesperson for easyJet told the Chronicle.

“Flights from Manchester and London Gatwick diverted to Malaga where we provided coach transfers to Gibraltar and the remaining four flights to and from Gibraltar today [Wednesday] are now unable to operate.”

“While this is outside of our control, we are doing all possible to minimise the impact of the strike action for passengers, providing options to rebook or receive a refund as well as hotel accommodation and meals where required.”

“While this is outside of our control, we would like to apologise to customers who have been impacted by this strike action,” they added.

It is not clear when the MoD, the Gibraltar Government or the airline became aware that the Met Office strike would impact Gibraltar, but several passengers on board the flights said pilots only found out when they were in the air and close to their expected destination.

Among the passengers affected by the strike was Davinder Virdi, who was hoping to travel on the 4pm British Airways flight to Heathrow and said it was the first time he had used Gibraltar’s airport, adding he would not be using it again.

Instead, he would opt for Malaga as he has done in the past.

“It is disastrous, we have just come in from Marbella,” he said.

Sitting with his daughter Simran, he was desperately trying to book new flights for the two of them out of Malaga for later on Wednesday.

“But it’s going to cost me a fortune,” he said.

Also travelling on Wednesday afternoon was a British serviceman who needed to be back in the UK the following day and had rebooked, together with his two travel companions, on alternative flights from Malaga at a cost of £300 each.

Another passenger who gave his name only as James said he had been forced to reschedule business meetings after his flight from Gibraltar was cancelled.

James was hoping to find a hotel room on the Rock for the night and fly home on Thursday.

Close to him, a group of three friends who were all due to fly to Gatwick on the easyJet evening flight had bought new flights from Malaga at midnight.

One of the group, Tom Jessett, said he faced the prospect of a three-hour drive after landing in the UK, meaning he might not arrive home until 6am.

Mr Jessett and his two travel companions, Ollie Peters and Alistair Young, all had to take Thursday off work too or lose overtime they had accrued.

Even so, while initially they were very annoyed at the cancellation, believing it to be the airline’s fault, that anger eased when they realised it was due to a strike over pay and conditions.

Others were less sympathetic though.

John Barnett was due to be on the last flight of the day the easyJet to Gatwick.

Having heard that other flights were cancelled but still seeing his being scheduled on the website, he made his way to the airport having checked out of his hotel on the off chance that it was operational.

He noted that he knew in advance that his flight might be disrupted due to the strike as a friend had advised him of this.

He said easyJet was not helpful, telling him only that his flight was cancelled and very little else. He managed to switch his flight to Thursday but was unsure as to where he would be sleeping on Wednesday night.

He called the strike “childish” and said it would be impacting not only him but his team as he runs a call centre in Essex that deals with social housing with a portfolio of 68,000 properties.

“It's the ripple effect. It’s childish. It's not as though there's not a number of concessions that are made for the Met Office,” he said.

Another passenger, James Bryce, was travelling to Gibraltar with his wife and their son and said they only found out they were being diverted to Malaga 20 minutes before landing.

The pilot seemed as surprised as the passengers, Mr Bryce said.

The family was travelling to Gibraltar from Manchester for a six-day holiday but spent the first day of their trip navigating travel disruption.

Even so, they insisted the inconvenience they had experienced would not put them off enjoying their trip and exploring the option of moving here permanently.

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