Insight talks to Air Terminal Director Terence Lopez to find out how Gibraltar Airport has fared during the COVID-19 pandemic and what impact it has had on operational processes and procedures.
There is no doubt that the unexpected and dramatic effects of Covid-19 hit the aviation industry severely but Terence Lopez says that for Gibraltar Airport the initial response was that ‘it was just another day in the office”.
“We have previous experience from dealing with other similar situations like SARS and Mad Cow disease so we didn’t have to dig down very deep or rewrite the books,” he explains. “The airport manages risk on a daily basis – whether that is security, safety or reputational risks – and we follow the same model in assessing these which involves adding on appropriate mitigation to try and reduce these so that they are as low as possible.”
Terence states that at the beginning Covid-19 was just another ‘risk’ but that the difference was that in this case the risk was not only an unseen element which no one new how to deal with, it was at the same time serious enough to warrant extra protective measures to keep the Air Terminal functioning. This included and initiating the Business Continuity Plans that were needed to be put in place because Gibraltar Airport was a vital link and had to stay open.
Guidelines were put in place for operational staff who had to come to work. “Part of their job involves interacting with and searching passengers and handling their items, so we had to manage that and deal with these extra challenges which were thrown into the normal daily routine of catching a flight,” Terence clarifies. “This involved providing staff with the necessary PPE and understanding when it should be applied and when masks and gloves had to be worn whilst ensuring that we remained compliant with all of the necessary regulations.”
“In the beginning it was a learning curve and we applied a phased approach to the way we operated,” he states. “At the start of the pandemic, the GHA were sending all the swab samples to laboratories that were in the UK so all the swabs that were taken locally had to be flown out.” Because swabs travel as a biohazard they have to go in the hold of the aircraft and that needs to be booked 24 hours in advance. “It is not complex but it is time consuming and all of this had to be factored in,” Terence says. “The Air Terminal, together with all the other Essential Services, formed part of the
Civil Contingencies group at national level and continue to be involved in all aspects related to being one of the entry points to Gibraltar.”
As the pandemic ensued Terence says that several long nights were spent trying to get people home to Gibraltar or back from where they came. “Flights were being cancelled and countries were closing around us and the Port of Gibraltar was one of the only ones that was open to shipping.” He goes on to state that a very strict protocol was put in place by the Gibraltar Port Authority and that the airport, together with the Director of Public Health and the Gibraltar Borders and Coastguard Agency, spent an incredible amount of time and effort to ensure that seafarers were able to get back to their homes via Gibraltar. “On one occasion we had two charter aircraft sitting on the tarmac chartered by a cruise liner company specifically for the repatriation of over three hundred ships’ crew and this trend continued and our charter traffic for 2020 increased substantially.” An added point is that Gibraltar airport is actually a civilian air terminal which sits on a military airfield so it was very important to have a symbiotic relationship with the Ministry of Defence to keep the airport open. “We have very good relationships with our colleagues in the RAF and we try and assist them when necessary, normally with the parking of military aircraft when required.” Terence says that being able to keep the airport open was a lifeline to the outside world and one of those golden opportunities when you realise why Gibraltar needs the airport. “Countries to the north and south of Gibraltar closed, there was no shipping and there was no road link due to the fact that the border was also closed for a period of time.”
After a while the airport was handling as little as between two and four flights a week because there were still students returning from university and specialised personnel that needed to fly in. However, commercial business was at a standstill.
“We have now got to the stage of economic recovery and thankfully, because we never closed and the Government of Gibraltar didn’t furlough anybody, it was a smooth transition to where we are now and we have worked up to what has become around thirty flights a week,” Terence clarifies. That, of course, meant that staff had to be kept competent in their training and then getting people used to eight movements a day instead of one or two and ensuring that they were all working in a safe environment.
There are also new challenges to contend with. “There is so much documentation involved in travelling, so many extras that didn’t manifest themselves before, such as the passenger locator forms and the fact that you have to have a test before you fly.”
Terence goes on to say that they have done everything they can to make the process of flying in or out of the terminal as smooth as possible. “But this is the airport facilitating the function – what we can’t do is change the State requirements, so we are a bit stuck in that if you are flying to the UK the conditions are imposed by the UK, so you can’t board the aircraft if you haven’t complied with their conditions, and the passenger locator forms can be a bit complicated.” This unfortunately does result in some passengers becoming frustrated, especially when people turn up with not enough time before a flight thinking they will get on it when they haven’t complied with the requirements needed to fly. There has been some positive feedback on social media from passengers who have been assisted by check-in staff, but Terence wants to make it clear that what staff cannot do is to fill in the passenger locator form for anyone because it is a personal statement, and with forty-five flights a week scheduled for August they would need an army of people to help them out!
The delivery of thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to Gibraltar was another essential link in the chain for the airport. “That was handled by our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, with the help of the RGP and the GHA,” Terence elucidates, “but we also had flights coming in here during the pandemic with PPE, so we were staying open late to provide gloves and masks for the hospital, and to transport specialised medical personnel.”
One of the good things that has come on the back of the pandemic for the Air Terminal is that its destination footprint has grown. Terence explains that before it used to be limited to Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester, Bristol, with Edinburgh due to start soon, as well as Eastern Airways expanding into Gibraltar from Birmingham and Southampton. “I am also very happy to see BA Cityflyer from London City which I think it is a great route and I hope that it establishes itself well and develops in the future.”
Terence credits the Minister for Business and Tourism, the Hon Vijay Daryanani MP, with working hard in an effort to constantly attract more business. “The Minister is very heavily involved in trying to attract more airlines and to develop new routes.” He goes on to say that service delivery is really important because you can’t offer new destinations and routes without being able to serve them properly. “Everybody pulls in the same direction and we work very hard to keep everybody working as a unit, so even though they are made up of different organisations we can address any issues that turn up across the board.” Terence gives an example of delivering quick service at the check-in desk but having a slower service at other stages of the departure process. “It is managing those so that we can deliver the best possible service to our passengers and of course keep it safe for our staff – our biggest asset.”
There were lots of challenges in making sure that all the new prevention measures were in place, and some of those were as simple as only letting people in to the terminal who were flying. “That cuts any extra contagion that could have been out there, but it has worked and I am happy to say that I think it was one of the little success stories that came out of what was a tragic situation.” The restrictions in the terminal are now gone and people can come in, meet and greet passengers or see them off on their journey. “That is a really big step for us because we were literally pushing people out of the door and that is not what we are like, we want everybody to come in.”
From his viewpoint looking down on the terminal entrance hall, or when he has a chance to walk around on the ground floor concourse, Terence says that the he is privileged to witness the human side of family reunions, from older generations reuniting with younger family members who have been separated, to the seafarers for whom Gibraltar was the first bit of dry land they had stepped on not knowing where they were going, and one of the first bits of dry land on their way back home.
“We are a community airport and as such we are an extension of Gibraltar and we do things here very much the same as we do in Gibraltar itself,” Terence states. “We are formal in the way we do business but we are welcoming and attempt to do our best in service delivery, but we also try to comply with everything that needs to be done, and on those occasions when we succeed it makes it all worth it.”
Throughout the whole pandemic, Gibraltar Airport was an essential gateway. “In the space of a year the terminal has gone from a panic situation where people needed to get home, to ticking over and now all of a sudden it is a gateway and we are getting all the economic development back in – it is a good place to be at the moment – and even if things turn sour again we will be ready to tackle anything that comes our way,” Terence concludes.