I have now survived two trips in and out of Gibraltar airport.
Let me be clear: THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN TO ME AGAIN.
And not only because Gibraltar is #2 on the list of scariest airports in the world. After you have survived the landing — or an aborted landing — the fun really begins. Here is my cautionary tale:
On my first trip into Gibraltar a few weeks ago, we were warned that the pilot might not be able to land due to high winds. I remember wondering as we were circling above that very big, very jagged rock, whether flights to Gibraltar get diverted often and if so, when the decision is made to divert. The answers to both questions is (drumroll):
1.) A lot. (Do a search on YouTube for “aborted Gibraltar landings” to get a sense of how frequently this happens)
2.) At the last possible second.
An aborted landing at Gibraltar is terrifying to say the least (watch this video of an aborted landing in Gibraltar to get a sense of what it looks like from the ground). Our pilot took us through two of these attempts before diverting to Malaga, where we sat on the runway for another hour while he argued with someone (air traffic control? British Airways? who knows…) that it was not safe enough to refuel and go back for another try at Gibraltar. In the end, he won the argument and informed us that we would disembark and take a bus from Malaga to Gibraltar (a 2 hour trip).
Little did I know that the nightmare was only just beginning…
Despite the fact that flights get diverted to Malaga on a regular basis, the Spanish seemed completely flummoxed by the diverted flight. It took forever to get our passports stamped. Worse, no one seemed to know where our bags were. Turns out that the bags were sent to two different locations in the terminal. Those of us who couldn’t find our bags got left behind by British Airways representatives who were responsible for shepherding passengers to waiting buses. It took almost 3 hours from the time the plane landed to the time I boarded a bus for Gibraltar (a 2 hour trip).
But the fun still wasn’t over. Thanks to a dispute between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar, we were in for many more hours of misery.
A little background: Gibraltar belongs to the UK and this does not sit well with Spain. Last year, the conflict escalated dramatically when Gibraltar started to build an artificial reef that Spain claims will block its fishing boats. Spain threatened a number of measures against the UK but settled instead on making life miserable for people who fly in and out of the airport instead (so mature and so productive, don’t you think?). This means that when you fly in or out of Gibraltar, Spain deliberately makes you wait in long lines at the border crossing. Yes, that’s right. It is deliberate and Spain is very up-front about what they are doing.
In our case, the bus had to cross the border to take us into Gibraltar where friends and family were waiting for us. Then we all had to cross back over the border again. So, the 5 hour nightmare from touchdown at Malaga to arrival by bus in Gibraltar became 9 hours by the time it was all over. Turns out that the aborted landing was probably the least of the day’s miseries.
Everyone has their nightmare flight stories. It is simply a part of travel. I tell my Gibraltar tale of woe only because I learned something important (besides the fact that one should never, EVER fly in and out of Gibraltar). The big lesson here is to PAY ATTENTION TO AIRPORTS WHEN MAKING TRAVEL PLANS. This may be a no-brainer for some folks, but I usually book flights based on the most convenient flight times at the best price. No more. After my Gibraltar nightmare, I am committed to researching airports more thoroughly before I book flights.
Fortunately, the internet makes this easy. Here are a few web sites I’ve found that can help travelers avoid nightmare airports, or at least plan accordingly when there are no alternatives:
1.) Bureau of Transportation Statistics (U.S. airports only)
2.) Skytrax has an airport review and ranking system; however, note that Skytrax is a consultancy. In other words, they are paid by the folks their system reviews.
3.) The World Airport Awards hands out kudos each year to good airports, but that doesn’t help much in terms of avoiding bad ones.
4.) The media regularly does “bad airport” reviews. Here are two recent ones from the Wall Street Journal and CNN:
It will be a cold day in hell before I fly in or out of Gibraltar again. Hopefully this experience will help me to avoid other nightmare airports in the future.
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