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Malta - Mediterranean Crossroads

Kevan James

February 26, 2022

Located halfway between northern Africa and Europe, Malta’s geographical position in the heart of the Mediterranean has historically been of great strategic value for traders, merchants, and military powers - and by the 1920s civil aviation had already arrived in Malta, when the islands were still under British rule. Malta’s first civil airfield was constructed at Ta’ Qali. Others, including one at Ħal Far, shortly followed. These were severely damaged during the Second World War and civil operations subsequently centred on the one at Luqa airport, where the airport remains today.

Hal Far in the 1950s

More passengers and aircraft movements necessitated the construction of a civil air terminal in 1956. The British Government mainly financed what was at the time a Lm300,000 (€700,000) project. Malta’s new passenger terminal at Luqa was inaugurated on March 31, 1958 by Sir Robert Laycock, then Governor of Malta. It consisted of two floors and included basic facilities such as a restaurant, post office, cable and wireless office, and a viewing balcony – a far cry from the bustling, multifaceted destination that Malta International Airport has developed into today.

Luqa in the 1950s

In October 1977, a longer main runway was built and the terminal was extended and refurbished, with lounges for arrivals and VIPs also being added. The improvements were a step in the right direction but the terminal still lacked certain essential facilities. Following a change in Government in 1987, the new administration decided that the 35-year- old terminal was past its time and gave the green light for the construction of a new terminal.

In the meantime, the government also embarked on another upgrade of the old air terminal. Updated airport facilities included air conditioning, modern baggage carousels, flight information monitors, computerised check-in desks, new floors, and additional retail outlets (including a larger duty free area).

The new terminal was inaugurated in 1992, just 29 months after the foundation stone was laid in September 1989. Now known as Malta International Airport (rather than simply 'Luqa') it became fully operational on March 25, 1992, and the old terminal was effectively closed down after 35 years in service.

The terminal complex comprises of split level Departure and Arrival Halls at either side of the main building with spacious Check-In, Baggage Reclaim and Welcomers’ Halls. Within the terminal travellers will also find eateries and retail outlets, and for those who work there, offices, stores and other service areas. For business travellers, the airport has two executive lounges operated by La Valette Club, as well as a separate exclusive VIP terminal situated just off the main aircraft parking area, which is used for Heads of States, diplomats and VIPs.

La Vallette Club Lounge

In July 2002, after expending considerable time and investment on a robust and successful operation, the Maltese Government sold 40% of its equity to the Malta Mediterranean Link Consortium Ltd and a further 40% to the general public. The move to full privatisation marked the start of a new chapter for the airport, with worldwide connections continuing to improve and traffic reaching 7.2 million passenger movements by the end of 2019, marking a decade of uninterrupted growth.

Beyond traffic development, the Company entrusted with the development, management and operation of Malta International Airport in 2002, adopted a diversification strategy, which has seen the development of the Company’s retail and property portfolio within the non-aviation segment, which has contributed around 30% of Malta International Airport’s revenues over the years. Introducing a relatively new concept to the local market back in 2012, Sky Parks Business Centre was a landmark retail and property investment for the Company. The resounding success of this project encouraged the Company to invest in a second multi-purpose building – Sky Parks 2 – works on which are currently underway.

With sustainability being one of the Company’s core values, Malta International Airport has been publishing a sustainability report since 2016, becoming the first Maltese company to adopt the Global Report Initiative guidelines in voluntarily disclosing to the public its economic, environmental and social impacts. The Company formally pledged its commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 in 2019, officially appointed its first Sustainability Manager a year later.

In an effort to enhance Malta’s cultural and environmental offering, the airport set up the independent, non-profit Malta Airport Foundation in 2014, which is entrusted with identifying and supporting projects aimed at preserving, conserving and promoting the Maltese islands’ unique heritage. Some of the most notable projects the Foundation has supported so far include two underwater documentaries shining the spotlight on Filfla and Comino; the restoration of the 17th-century Ta’ Xutu watchtower in collaboration with Din l-Art Ħelwa; and the restoration of the Combined Operations Room within the Underground War Headquarters in Valletta in collaboration with Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna.

Malta International Airport is guided by a vision of service excellence, and has been awarded the prestigious title ‘Best Airport in Europe‘ by Airports Council International three times in a row. Additionally, the airport was the recipient of the Best Airport and HR Excellence titles in November 2020, which were awarded by Airports Council International in recognition of the Company’s laudable efforts, both as an airport operator and an employer, in response to the unprecedented challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2019, the airport welcomed over 7 million passengers of which around 2.7 million were inbound tourists. Thirty-three airlines connected the Maltese islands to more than 125 destinations in 43 countries. Airport activity at this level makes Malta one of the best connected in its class. In addition, economic activity involving aviation and non-aviation enterprises contributed to more than 20,000 jobs in 2019, representing 7% of all jobs in Malta. Since opening in 1992, and later becoming privatised in 2002, the passenger terminal has received continuous investment in infrastructure, equipment, personnel, and services.

The airfield has two runways; 13-31 (3,350m long x 58m wide) and 05-23 (2,373m long x 45m wide) aligned nearly at right angles to each other. Runway 13/31 is served by a system of taxiways, enabling aircraft to turn round at each end of the runway and to gain access to and from Apron 9 (the aircraft apron associated with the terminal building). Runway 05/23 has a parallel taxiway to the north-west which is 18m wide and taxiway systems, giving access to aircraft Aprons 2, 3, and 5, as well as aircraft Apron 8 and runway 13/31.

€40 New Apron Investment

An investment of almost €40 million in the construction of a new apron, which will equip the airport with the aerodrome infrastructure needed to handle future growth, has been given the green light by Malta International Airport’s Board of Directors.

The Apron X project will see the development of an area measuring around 100,000 square metres, which is roughly comparable to the size of 14 football pitches. This development will significantly improve the airport’s aircraft parking capacity and its ability to better handle mixed-fleet operations, particularly during peak hours in summer. Apron X will introduce new parking stands that can accommodate either seven Code C or three Code E aircraft, with the former being the more common aircraft type to land at Malta International Airport, in addition to 20 existing stands available on Aprons 8 and 9.

“At this critical juncture, we have the responsibility to start taking long-term decisions, even if they may appear to be at odds with the current aviation environment, that will determine the future of the local tourism industry. Today’s approval of the Apron X investment is Malta International Airport’s strongest statement yet about its confidence in the industry’s ability to recovery to pre-pandemic levels, as well as its potential to grow further and achieve new records,” said the airport's Chief Executive Officer Alan Borg.

Besides creating better aircraft parking capacity, the project will include the construction of a new taxiway, which will improve accessibility to the new apron, and the development of a staging area in a strategic location, housing facilities for essential ground handling operations. These ancillary facilities will complement the main development in contributing to a smoother and more efficient operation on the ground, whilst allowing Malta International Airport to see further traffic and commercial growth.

The Apron X project is also envisaged to support the airport in honouring its environmental commitments through the construction of a 10,000 m3 reservoir for better rainwater harvesting and the installation of LED floodlighting systems. Additionally, the project will provide for preparatory works for the electrification of parking stands, in line with Article 12 of the European Union’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions Fit for 55, which will provide parked aircraft with access to an electricity supply rather than fuel.

Works on the project are expected to commence in the coming weeks once the local Planning Authority issues a permit for this development. While the Company is eyeing the start of summer 2024 for the completion and utilisation of the first parking stands, the full project is expected to be concluded in 2026.

Like airports everywhere, the last two years have been somewhat trying but as an island, even though it is not too far from the nearest land mass (in any direction) Malta understands the need for and the essential nature of, a vibrant air transport sector and its forward-looking management team is making certain the airport keeps its place as a centre for transport in the Mediterranean Sea.

Information and images courtesy of Malta International Airport Media Relations


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