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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK
'Single Sky' snags on Rock of Gibraltar
Gibraltar airstrip
Spanish planes are not allowed to land in Gibraltar
By Rachel Ellison

With air fares cheaper than ever before, Europeans are hopping on and off planes to a clutch of continental destinations.

By 2015, it is predicted that we'll see a 60% increase in flights - from 8.5 million a year, to 13 million. Air traffic controllers say they are already stretched to the limit, and the old summertime peak has become an all-year-round high of people in transit.

air traffic controllers
European air traffic controllers are under increasing pressure
Overcrowded skies and a number of near miss accidents have worried EU ministers, who recognise that the current air traffic control system is buckling under the strain. They want to streamline it and create one big, shared European sky.

At the moment, Europe's airspace is divided into a network of 73 air traffic control centres. The USA has 20 centres to handle twice the number of flights.

According to the International Air Transport Association, just five state-of-the-art air traffic control centres could look after the whole of Europe's airspace.

Sovereignty dispute

The new proposals are called European Single Sky. The initiative has been embraced by both EU and non-EU member countries. But the plans have hit a stumbling block - the Rock of Gibraltar, and the centuries old sovereignty dispute between Britain and Spain.

Ever since 1704, when the British seized the Mediterranean peninsula, the Spanish have been trying to get it back.

We are not prepared to be the sacrificial lambs and left out in order that Spain signs the Single Sky agreement

Opposition leader Joe Bossano
Spain, Britain and Gibraltar are eager to sign up to the Single Sky proposals. But Spain says she'll only do so if Gibraltar is excluded. Britain has quietly side-stepped any discussion over sovereignty, leaving the Gibraltarians feeling out on a limb.

Only metres from the Spanish border, Gibraltar's airport receives just a couple of flights a day from Britain. Spanish planes aren't allowed to land here - and aircraft taking off have to make a sharp turn around the Rock, so as not to fly, illegally, into Spanish airspace.

Gibraltarian anger

Joe Bossano is the leader of the opposition party and the longest serving member of the Gibraltarian Parliament.

Like many Gibraltarians, he's fully in favour of the "open skies" agreement, but he's determined that the Spanish must not be allowed to - as he sees it - blackmail Gibraltar over sovereignty and the status of her airport.

Joe Bossano
Joe Bossano is concerned for Gibraltar's status
"We are not prepared to be the sacrificial lambs and left out in order that Spain signs the Single Sky agreement. If it's going to be held up for us - let it be held up for everybody," he said.

"The whole point is to have a centralised air traffic control system for the whole of Europe. If Gibraltar is excluded from European airspace, what will happen? Will we be classified as African airspace instead? This just shows the nonsense of the Spanish position!"

Moving forward and opening up Gibraltar's skies would further develop her economic potential. Direct flights from Madrid would boost tourism and create jobs for both Gibraltarian and Spanish workers.

Britain and Spain are partners in Europe, so it should be possible to come up with a formula.

Paco Oliva, Gibraltar Chronicle
According to the news editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle, Paco Oliva, Single Skies could prove an economic motor for the entire region, including the Spanish hinterland.

Mr Oliva is one of the few Gibraltarian journalists to write openly about trying move on from the past, towards a workable solution with the Spanish.

"The Spaniards have been consistent in their approach to Gibraltar over the years. Their bottom line has always been that they want the sovereignty of Gibraltar at whatever cost," he said.

"Britain and Spain are partners in Europe, so it should be possible to come up with a formula. The EU should act as the middle-man, and broker a deal so that everyone can more forward."

Political will

There is only so long this age-old dispute can keep the rest of Europe waiting on Single Sky. Passengers are fed up with delays, while the new generation of low-cost airlines is eager to expand its business.

flight announcements
Passengers are fed up with delays
However, Tim Jeans from Ryanair warns that it will take years to introduce the complex and tremendously expensive infrastructure.

"We don't even have the political will for Single Sky that is critical before we can make any progress in this area," he warned.

The EU Council of Ministers meets later this month, and it is hoped that Single Sky will feature high up on the agenda.

Another hope is that the Rock of Gibraltar will prove no more than a temporary obstacle in the plan for European take-off.

Rachel Ellison's report features in Europe Direct, airing this week on BBC World

See also:

25 Jul 01 | Trouble in the air
Pushing tin in the tower
08 Jan 01 | Europe
Air safety warnings dismissed
18 Apr 01 | Europe
Germany braced for air chaos
23 Jan 01 | UK Politics
More staff to control the skies
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