UK helo operator may offer new Malta service

 - December 10, 2007, 12:19 PM

UK operator British International has been asked to take over the helicopter service between the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo. The original service by Malta Air Charter, which used two Bulgarian-registered Mil Mi-8s, closed down late last year after Malta’s May 1 entry into the European Union brought aircraft certification and operation under the new European Aviation Safety Agency.

British International director Tony Jones said that, after responding to a tender request earlier last year, he made four visits to Malta and has subsequently learned that his company’s subsidiary Veritair had become the preferred operator.

There are, however, a few obstacles to the company undertaking the service. “They wanted us to take over the day after the Mi-8s became grounded–and they had not done any marketing to ensure that there would be a revenue stream from day one,” said Jones, adding, “We were being asked to take it on the chin until the business grew by itself.

“We would initially send one S-61N, but the 600-foot runway at Xewkija, Gozo, is too short to satisfy EASA rejected-takeoff requirements. We could theoretically work to performance class two, but an area of rough ground off the airstrip would still have to be cleared. Either option requires some government investment.

“I think there is potential for a successful operation–the 24-seat Mils flew 24/7, year round, and there are utility opportunities. However, we are not prepared to go in there cold.”

Malta Air Charter introduced the 22-nm helicopter link between Malta and Gozo in 1990. After reaching a peak of 64,000 passengers in 1994, the service settled down to carrying between 30,000 and 40,000 passengers per year.

According to Maltese government figures, during that period the service also lost nearly $3.45 million–making a profit only during 1994 and 1995. However, since then, the service experienced an upturn and in 2003 and 2004 it lost only $460,000.

The Gozitan business community has expressed its concern over discontinuation of the service, calling for the proper development and subsequent maintenance of an airstrip on the island.

British International is a spin-off company of British International Helicopters, which came under the CHC Europe banner in 1999. It performs the Penzance to Scilly scheduled operation and various COMR (commercially owned, military registered) contracts for the UK military.