A Pilot’s Nightmare? – Gibraltar Airport Shares Runway Space with City’s Pedestrains and Vehicles

July 1, 2009 at 11:36 am

(Source: Wikipedia, AOPA Blog, Hoax-Slayer.com)

For many of us, there exists on the world map a small state called Gibraltar, which is a self-governing British overseas territory located on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula andEurope at the entrance of the Mediterranean overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. The territory covers 6.843 square kilometres (2.642 sq mi) and shares a land border with Spain to the north. The Gibraltar Airport is 1,600 feet from the city, the shortest commute of any major airport in the world. One would naturally ask the question how difficult it is to operate and land aircrafts when the airport is so close to the city.  British Gibraltar has very little area, and the important airport runway takes up a major portion of land. To drive from Gibraltar to Spain, vehicles must cross the runway.The picture below (taken by a Cessna Pilot as he approached for landing) shows you what happens in Gibraltar where pedestrians and vehicles share the space with aircraft on the tarmac.

Image Courtesy: AOPA

From the picture, one can clearly see an arterial road, Winston Churchill Avenue, dissecting the long concrete runway.  One can also see that the arterial road is dotted with vehicles and pedestrains (those tiny figures which are hard to see; click to the image to magnify), which should be ringing the alarm bells for any pilot approaching for a landing.  In the past it could take 10 minutes to clear people and traffic off the runway so an aircraft could land. Now the Government is spending some big bucs building a tunnel to divert the vehicle and pedestrian traffic away from the air traffic.  In 2007, the Government of Gibraltar unveiled plans for a new airport terminal and tunnel. In a May 2007 press release, it notes:

Even with current airport use Gibraltar can no longer sustain a situation of severe traffic tailbacks, disruptions and delay every time an aircraft takes off or lands. This is even less acceptable in the context of increased use of the airport following the Cordoba Airport Agreement, which has enabled the normal operation of our airport.

Accordingly, the Government will also divert the main road leading to the north of the runway. This main road will no longer cross the runway at the centre, as at present. Instead, the new main road will take the route of Devils Tower Road, up to the junction with Eastern Beach Road. At that point there will be a large roundabout. The main road will then U-turn to the North through the site known as the Aerial Farm, passing parallel to Eastern Beach Road but behind the ex-Mediterranean Hotel building, and then passing under a tunnel at the Eastern end of the runway. Once it emerges from the tunnel on the north side of the runway the new road will run parallel to the frontier, passing under the air terminal fly-over section.

Even when the new tunnel under the Gibraltar runway is completed, pedestrians and emergency vehicles will continue to stop air traffic and use Winston Churchill Avenue above ground to cross it.   A wikipedia entry for this airport had the following:  The existing terminal at Gibraltar Airport has been, for many years, too small and the road across the runway is even more constraining to operations at the airport, especially with the increase in operations since the Córdoba Accord. Prior to this agreement, only three flights operated daily to Gatwick and Luton. On busy days at present some 7 flights now arrive and depart.  If the average time the road is closed for an aircraft to land or depart is 10 minutes, then on certain days the road can be closed for over two hours.

File:Gibralter Airport Checkpoint.jpg
It must be interesting to hear the conversations between the control tower folks and the pilots as they prepare the vehicle for landing.  Such a conversation would definitely involve a warning that goes to say “Caution: Watch for rogue pedestrains in the middle of runway”.  With the news media blaring about all sorts of air disasters from around the world everyday, it must makes me wonder about the safety record of this airport .
Some interesting facts: Gibraltar Airport has the distinction of being the closest airport to the city that it serves, being only 500 metres from Gibraltar’s city centre. In 2004 the airport handled 314,375 passengers and 380 tonnes of cargo. Gibraltar Airport is one of the few Class A airports in the world. of the country’s airport (IATAGIBICAOLXGB), which is a joint defense/civilian airport, owned by the Ministry of Defence for use by the Royal Air Force as RAF Gibraltar; currently the only scheduled flights operate to the United Kingdom and Spain.  Click here for an interesting article featuring a few more interesting pictures and a video.
(Hat Tip: Alton Marsh, AOPA Pilot’s Senior Editor)