Government conducting studies on operating new routes without Air Malta

Air Malta remains preferred vehicle to operate long-haul routes, but ministry says lack of agreement with pilots’ union will not stop it from realising new strategy

Government’s strategy is to open new medium- and long-haul routes
Government’s strategy is to open new medium- and long-haul routes

The government is carrying out studies on how to operate medium and long-haul flights, such as a planned route to New York, without making use of Air Malta, should no solution to a stand-off between the airline and the pilots’ union be found soon.

A spokesperson for Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi told BusinessToday that the government intended to implement its strategy of opening such routes to new markets, and that, although Air Malta remained the preferred choice for operating the new flights, if no agreement was found with the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) in this regard, it would be forced to seek “alternative means”.

The ministry is insisting it cannot accede to ALPA’s request that government guarantee a €700,000 early retirement scheme pay-out for pilots who reach the age of 55, even if Air Malta should fail.

Tourism minister Konrad Mizzi is insisting any sort of government guarantee would breach EU state aid rules
Tourism minister Konrad Mizzi is insisting any sort of government guarantee would breach EU state aid rules

This, the minister has said, was not possible, since it was not standard practice and would breach EU state aid regulations.

But, speaking to BusinessToday, an ALPA member yesterday disputed the minister’s statement, claiming the pilots’ union had never made a request for €700,000.

The ALPA member said that the union’s only demand was for a guarantee that Air Malta would not be closed down. No requests for money were made, they insisted.

“We never mentioned €700,000 and never demanded even one cent. None of the minutes of our meetings with government feature a reference to that sum. We just wanted a guarantee that Air Malta would keep operating,” the ALPA member said, adding that the pilots had requested that their pensions be safeguarded should Air Malta fail.

“When Malta MedAir was set up, we feared this could signal that Air Malta would be closed. All we wanted was a guarantee for ALPA members assuring us that there wasn’t a danger of Air Malta ceasing operations,” the union member emphasised.

Any guarantee would breach EU state aid rules

But in response to this, a ministry spokesperson last night told BusinessToday that the request for the government to guarantee the pilots’ early retirement scheme €700,000 pay-out had in fact been brought up by ALPA.

“The request for Government to guarantee the pilots’ early retirement scheme pay-out was made to Minister Mizzi and the Permanent Secretary within the Ministry for Tourism in the presence of Air Malta Chairman (Charles Mangion) and Air Malta CEO (Clifford Chetcuti) during a meeting held with the president of the Union, Mr Dominic Azzopardi at the ministry,” he said.

“Even if the request was for the government to guarantee that Air Malta will not cease operations, the government would not be in a position to give such a guarantee due to state aid restrictions,” the ministry spokesperson said.

The government, as the main Air Malta shareholder, remains committed on implementing its strategy for the sustainability and growth of the airline. The government intends to implement its strategy of opening medium- and long-haul routes to new markets, complementing the objectives highlighted in the Malta vision for Tourism 2025.

“Air Malta would clearly be the first and preferred vehicle through which this strategy ought to be implemented. Nevertheless, the government cannot jeopardise the implementation of this long-term strategy if not all sections of the company are amenable to working together towards this goal,” the ministry spokesperson said.

“Accordingly, if ALPA’s current attitude towards the future of the airline does not change, Government will be constrained to seek alternative means (other than Air Malta) to implement this strategy. Studies are currently being conducted as to how to operate such routes to and from Malta and various strategies are being planned and formulated.”

Pilot shortage

When speaking to this newspaper, the ALPA member also complained of a “pilot shortage”, saying that there currently weren’t enough pilots at Air Malta to operate the planned long-haul routes, and that resources were stretched thin, with leave being refused.

“We are not even being granted leave… not even the eight days off a month we are entitled to by law,” the union member said, “There is a shortage of pilots.”

The member, however, acknowledged that a number of flight cadets were currently undergoing training.

But, once again, the ministry had a different take on the matter,

The ministry spokesperson said that the pilots’ union had in fact been “inflexible” in not even permitting the company to appoint additional line training captains to help with cadet training.

“Air Malta pilots’ working conditions are comparable to industry standard,” the ministry spokesperson said, “So far ALPA has been inflexible even to allow the company to appoint more line training captains to facilitate the cadet training process, which process will further increase the pilot compliment. This notwithstanding, the company has taken on board ALPA’s views and is currently acting to address the perceived shortage through training of new pilots.”

The ministry spokesperson confirmed that Air Malta and ALPA had agreed on all principles relating to operations.

“However, ALPA isinsisting on a guarantee by government,” the spokesperson added. “The government will not entertain any such requests and will not enter into any agreement between the airline and ALPA.”

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