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Second day of disruption at Gib airport as NATS struggles to cover staff sickness

Eyleen Gomez

Air passengers faced another day of disruption on Friday as Gibraltar International Airport closed early again due to staff shortages at air traffic control, forcing the easyJet evening flight to divert to Malaga for the second day running.

On Thursday, the late easyJet flight from Gatwick was diverted to Malaga in what turned into a nightmare trip for those flying to Gibraltar.

The flight was delayed leaving London due to a controller strike in France and, on arrival in Malaga, passengers spent an hour waiting to be allowed off the plane while Spanish immigration officers checked the plane’s manifest and passenger list.

When they finally left the arrivals hall, passengers found there were no buses waiting to ferry them to Gibraltar, leaving them to call relatives for a lift, hire cars or pay for taxis.

“It was a really bad trip,” said one passenger, who preferred not to be named.

“I had a to pay over 200 euros for a taxi to the border, but at least I could afford it.”

“We were told we could claim it back from the airline, but some people just didn’t have the money.”

In Gibraltar, the problems at air traffic control persisted on Friday, when again the airport closed early.

NATS, the company that operates air traffic control under contract to the Ministry of Defence, said one of its staff was off work due to an injury and that despite its efforts, it had been unable to arrange cover on both days.

“NATS has tried every avenue to cover the shortfall but unfortunately have not been able to,” a spokesperson for the UK-based company told the Chronicle.

“Management always contact other members of the team who have the relevant training and may be available - depending on their work shift patterns - to see if they can cover short-notice staff sickness/illness or injury, but this has been unsuccessful.”

The explanation carried little weight with the Gibraltar Government, which said it was “extremely disappointed” that the issue had not been resolved.

The staff shortage was causing disruption to passengers and reputational damage to Gibraltar, No.6 Convent Place said.

“As a result, the Government of Gibraltar will reduce the sum paid to the MoD for the operation of the airfield for the month of September proportionally to reflect the reduction in service provided,” said Vijay Daryanani, the Minister for Tourism.

“The MoD are clearly being let down by their contractor here and the people of Gibraltar are thus, in turn, being let down by the MoD.”

“These problems did not arise before and NATS needs to address whatever the root cause of these shortages may be and provide interim as well as longer-term solutions.”

“The Government will reduce the amount we pay monthly for the use of the airfield to reflect these periods of downtime.”

“Additionally, easyJet needs to ensure it is able to manage the diversion to Malaga given the reports of passengers yesterday being kept in the aircraft for longer than necessary on landing and onward transport issues.”

“We are also in touch with the airline to address these matters arising from this very unsatisfactory turn of events.”

This is the not first time that the runway has been closed due to staff shortages at air traffic control, where resourcing and resilience has been an issue for over several years.

The MoD is responsible for the runway and subcontracts air traffic control to NATS, a company that also offers similar services at airfields in other UK territories and bases, as well as in the UK itself.

On several occasions since 2019, passengers have faced disruption due to unforeseen staff sickness.

Limits on the number of hours personnel are able to work at any one stretch mean that finding cover can often be impossible, raising questions as to whether the air traffic control service is adequately resourced.

NATS told the Chronicle last July that it had recruited additional assistants to bolster its service here, but they have yet to start work.

“NATS has recruited additional support staff who require security checks to be completed and then undergo extensive training prior to commencing their safety support roles in Gibraltar,” the spokesperson for NATS said.

“This training takes months rather than weeks to complete due to the specialist nature of the roles.”

“We hope to have the new team members trained up soon.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence told the Chronicle the problems would be raised with senior managers at the air traffic control company.

“Closure of the Gibraltar Airfield is a last resort, but a necessary safety measure if there are insufficient staff to provide a safe service,” the spokesperson said.

“We are in communication with NATS and will be meeting with their senior personnel to address this issue.”

For its part, the GSD expressed “bemusement” at the recent developments.

“It beggars belief that at a time of such economic upheaval one of Gibraltar’s entry points should be the subject of closures and disruption of this nature,” said Damon Bossino, the Shadow Minister for Transport.

“We are in the midst of awaiting positive outcomes on the negotiations regarding our post-Brexit future, which will focus heavily on fluid access via the frontier, to now see access to our other main entry point being put into question by issues of sick leave by what should be those on our ‘own side’ is staggering.”

“The Government needs to very seriously press for a prompt and effective resolution to this long-standing issue to avoid the potential for reputational damage for which a reduction in the fee paid to the MoD for the month of September as the Government proposes will be of little compensatory effect.”

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