Have we been taken for a ride?

by JOE GARCIA
The FlyGibraltar website has disappeared from the face of the internet. The company they had planned to charter aircraft from say they know nothing about flying to Gibraltar.

It is not so much a postponement, but more a terminal ending. It is the sad story of an airline enthusing everyone that they would be flying to a myriad destinations, and then never took off.

The final nail is now on the coffin. And the question is being asked: Have we all been taken for a ride?

A year ago Irish millionaire Robert Noonan and his fly-away team sat behind a desk at the Department of Trade and Industry. I was one of those who sat on the other side of the desk to hear about a multi-million plan to put Gibraltar on the airline map.

The news relayed was as exciting as it seemed unbelievable: A new Gibraltar-based airline was to offer 28 scheduled flights weekly to six destinations in the UK and Eire.

Mr Noonan, the chairman of FlyGibraltar, extolled that the project had materialised "and we will provide passengers with reliable low cost travel with the highest standards of customer service."

The Irishman had amassed a fortune to start an airline operation in the Jimena area in the Spanish neighbourhood where he lives, and when this failed ostensibly on environmental grounds, he crossed the frontier into Gibraltar and hailed a taxi. He told the taximan that he was looking for someone who could get involved in his investment plans for Gibraltar. He was put in touch with Darren McComb who until recently had been in the Royal Gibraltar Regiment. It was the start of the OEM empire in Gibraltar.

At the time of the FlyGibraltar inauguration, the Gibraltar government rightly gave the new airline red carpet treatment. It had long been Government policy to have air services to regional airports in the British isles. Minister Joe Holliday had a warm welcome for FlyGibraltar which, he said, had an "ambitious schedule."

Too ambitious, perhaps?

Within weeks of the high profile presentation in the heights of Europort, airline industry sources in Britain were saying it was pie in the sky.

But given the enthusiasm engulfing the project, anyone in Gibraltar who would have dared to adopt a sceptic stance would have been, at best, labelled a spoil sport.

Talk about the plan continued in the middle of the long hot summer of 2006. The airline would have two Boeing 737-200 aircraft based at Gibraltar. Each morning they would fly out to different destinations - 11 flights weekly to London Stansted, five to Manchester, four to Bristol, another four to Birmingham, three to Dublin and one to Cork.

That was the plan that had been cooked, using leased aircraft from a company called Astraeus Airlines. They would be supplying the crews and maintenance. There would be 20 pilots and 30 cabin crew. Cashflow for the first year was put at ?47 million, said a condidential business plan firmly clutched by Mr Holliday.

Astraeus would be providing the operating licence for the first year of operations. The pertinent licence applications were already, a year ago, "in the process of being filed wih the Civil Aviation Authority."

But that was to become an early obstacle in getting the airline to fly.

But such was the excitement that a year ago today, on 18 July, FlyGibraltar was saying it would be landing at the World TravelMarket a few months later to promote their plans.

The airline's Mark Carreras said that fares would be as low as from ?29.99 one way.

"The initiative is typical of the investor confidence that exists in Gibraltar's current economic climate," the Gibraltar Government had said in a statement.

But the Government got a major shock several months ago when they were told that the multi-millions required to get things moving would not be forthcoming.

The money flow had suddenly dried up. Meanwhile, OEM has continued with its construction projects, but long delays have set in at Cumberland Terraces and Nelson's View.

Following the great interest and demand generated by FlyGibraltar, there are many who feel let down by the uncertainty that now engulfs the project and the lack of an official statement explaining what exactly is happening.

Yesterday we tried to contact Mr Noonan but were told that he is currenly travelling abroad an will not be available until next week.

A recent letter written by Mark Carreras said: "Although it is true to say that Mr Noonan is chairman and a director of FlyGibraltar, he has not been involved in the day to day running of the project, therefore making him unaware of various issues or details which were discussed with various other individuals and companies. It is I and Mike Lee (CEO for FlyGibraltar) who have been driving the project forward."

Certainly Gibraltar would welcome the airline taking of, but the general perception is that this is not the postponement of a project, but the demise of it.

A specialist aviation online site gives the status of FlyGibraltar as 'out of business.'

If you check the address in Casemates of OEM, it is 'Vault 13."

How unlucky can they get?




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