INTERVIEW | Charles Pace: Malta must exploit the potential of helicopters, seaplanes and drones

Captain Charles Pace heads the Civil Aviation Directorate. For all aviation-related matters, the buck stops with him. He is a former pilot with Malta’s national carrier, and has 40 years of operational experience in the aviation sector in various areas, including cabin services, ground operations, aircraft leasing and regulatory affairs


What do your duties as Director General of the Civil Aviation entail?

The Civil Aviation Directorate (CAD) within Transport Malta is in charge of regulating every aviation activity in Malta together with the promotion of the aviation industry in general. Our oversight ranges from that of Malta International Airport (MIA) and Malta Air Traffic Services (MATS), Malta Air, Air Malta, Medavia and many others. The Civil Aviation directorate is the regulator on top of all things aviation in Malta.

Malta follows all European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulations and the Standards and Recommended Practices of the International Civil Aviation Organization. The CAD is audited by EASA on a regular basis, to ensure conformity with these international standards. This ensures a level playing field across the EU when it comes to licensing, meaning that a Maltese license is equal to that of any other European country giving local registered companies and individuals a very solid platform and access to a large market.

My role as Director General is to head the Directorate and ensure that the oversight of these activities is done to an optimum level in line with regulation. The role of the Director General in laden with many responsibilities and he is held accountable. Aviation in general has distinct lines of duties and responsibilities and this is reflected in the set up of the Directorate as well. In terms of the law, the Director General assumes the role of ultimate decision maker on technical issues. This obviously needs input from a vast array of professionals who make up the Directorate and assist the DGCA on a daily basis. Policy is drawn up by the government of the day, but the execution of such policy is decided on technical merits and in line with clear regulation.  

The CAD and the DGCA obviously are part of the Authority for Transport and hence follow all Transport Malta administrative procedures being ultimately responsible to the Chairman and the Board in this respect.

I must state that not too long ago, the regulator had lost a lot of its strength, due to lack of investment and understanding. This has been reversed over the past five or six years where efforts were efforts were made to regain the recognition that is required to be seen as and to function as a regulator. I can proudly say that the industry needed a strong but fair regulator and that today we are recognized as such by those who have invested in Malta. Without a strong and efficient regulator any sector is destined to fail with the dire consequences that brings with it.

How many aircraft and companies are currently registered on the Maltese aircraft registry? What’s the trend here – have the number of aircraft and companies registered been increasing as Malta becomes a more popular registrar?

We have seen records broken on a yearly basis, with the register reaching 350 aircraft as we speak. We have another 100 aircraft in line to be processed in the coming months putting the total amount close to 450 by the first quarter of 2020.

There are also 37 Air Operator Certificates (AOCs) – which are technically airlines, which can vary from a one-aircraft airline to one with over 50 or 60 – registered in Malta. There are three AOCs currently being processed, and another seven or eight preparing to submit an application next year.

These are complimented by other activities which are growing. We have seven Air Training Organisations (ATOs), and three other applications are pending. Moreover, we’ve lately seen a surge in cabin crew training organisations, and some very good players with vast experience have come in from other jurisdictions. We also have Part-147 training organisations, which train engineers to become aircraft mechanics. The maintenance and repair sector remains strong and aircraft painting has been successfully introduced further diversifying the product.  The first full Flight Pilot simulator has now been in operation for over a year and others are possible in the near future.

Obviously the industry has a positive effect on other sectors of the economy as people and companies pay taxes and spend money on a day to day basis.

Malta has developed into a thriving hub with a strong aviation cluster within it. It has shown great resilience in adapting to new challenges especially in the private sector with Law firms, accountancy firms and many others rising to the occasion and diversifying, thus adding value to Malta as a quality jurisdiction.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the banking sector and certain other governmental departments which sadly haven’t yet come to terms with the industry or the times. Old habits die hard for them, and, unfortunately, we still have some work to do to convince the few stakeholders who are lagging behind and stuck in the past to join us in our quest to make Malta a better place to operate from.

Has there been any significant change in the type of aircraft being registered?

Up to around two years ago, Malta was mainly a place where business jets would be registered. Nowadays, the latest AOCs are passenger liners with larger aircraft types and much more passenger seats. The business jet sector remains strong with important names such as VistaJet, AirX, Comlux and TAG but the Airliner market has gathered pace with the introduction of airlines such as Malta Air, Smartlynx, Freebird and Corendon.  This means our job has changed slightly but it is a positive sign, as it creates more jobs and opportunities.

What is next for Malta?

Well 2020 looks like it will be another busy year. As mentioned earlier we have various companies who are expected to apply for a new AOC and we see many current companies who will consolidate and grow in size. We are currently working on the licensing of the Gozo heliport which should be open for commercial traffic when the necessary investment is ready and in place. We are also very much interested into expanding into aircraft leasing and financing, as it is the natural progression from our current position. We want to be competitive in every aspect of aviation and have the full range of activities.

We’ve also worked a lot on updating old legislation whilst introducing new ones. We have recently held a public consultation on further revisions to the Aircraft Registration Act and to the Air Navigation Order, to bring them in line with current trends, and new niches like that of unmanned aircraft. This needs to be an ongoing process if we are to remain competitive and we urge stakeholders to be part of this process of renewal.

Within the context of this growing and broad industry, do you encounter challenges when it comes to retaining workers?

I must admit that finding and keeping personnel has become a major challenge. In general, the aviation sector is a highly paid market, throughout the world. It is a reality that there is a lot of demand in the industry and when companies cannot find new people, they tend to “poach” from other local companies, including staff from my own directorate. In a way, we’re a victim of our own success, and although job mobility can be healthy it is a major headache.  

Many organisations invest a lot in training employees and would hope that those people stay with them for a certain period prior to moving on.

It would not be possible to build an aviation cluster without understanding how the cluster workers and to benchmark jobs within the regulatory authority. The authority needs to maintain a pool of talented people to guarantee stability. If workers are not paid properly in this sector, they will leave as long as the demand remains high.

The rental market is also posing problems due to the fact that many jobs in the sector are taken up by non Maltese. I believe the market needs to provide accommodation suitable for the demographic. The industry provides various highly paid posts but pay for the back office job is in line with other sectors of the economy and the pay does not allow a person who comes from abroad the luxury of renting out a large “Maltese” style flat. Many of these persons are young and single and smaller and cheaper studio type apartments would be much more suitable.   

The same could be said for dormitories required for students who come here for short periods of training. We do not seem to cater for this type of accommodation which is very common in other countries where universities of training facilities attract short to medium term students.

The aviation industry appears to be doing well. But is Malta using all of its potential in this area?

I believe that we need to encourage more locals into a wider range of aviation jobs. Locals need to know about ALL the opportunities and not just focus on piloting and engineering. The government has recently announced favorable loans for people who want to continue studies.

This could be a major game changer in Malta if adopted well. Companies can participate by offering job security and on the job training in line with this scheme to produce a future generation of aviation personnel. We could become an “exporter” of talent rather than a place that needs to bring in people from abroad.  

If we would like to be a leader in this sector we need to be more adventurous and innovative, I would say. We should look, for instance, at how we can increase the usage of helicopters for transportation. Logistics-wise, you can land a helicopter on a roof and it is absolutely ridiculous that our major hospitals both in Malta and in Gozo do not have an elevated helipad.  

Why are we not catering for certain strategic helipads which take up only small portions of land? Smart city, anyone? Why isn’t there a floating helipad in the Grand Harbor to compliment the super yachts berthed there and to offer cruise liner passengers a sightseeing opportunity on their short visit to the island?

The same can be said for seaplanes. Malta’s climate is ideal for their use – we have a very long summer, and winter also offers many days with favourable weather. A seaplane used to be use in Malta, but the logistics at the time prevented its continued use. New seaplanes are now available and these could be an added tool for tourism both as a means of transportation and also sightseeing.

When it comes to drones, we’ve undertaken research and development with companies who’ve shown interest in coming to Malta to use the vast airspace we have over the sea to try out new drone systems. We’ve had drones flying out beyond the line of sight – 10km out, and returning – for instance.

The fact we’re somewhat relatively more liberal in this respect, because of the sea around us, is showing Malta can be a centre for drone testing. In this regard, we’re looking at two companies who’ve shown interest in setting up a drone school to train pilots in flying drones. I believe the market requires a higher degree of training. There’s also a market for professional drones which can do work such as geological surveys.

The potential for widespread usage of drones is there. For instance, drones could be used to carry out certain small deliveries, such as of blood samples to hospitals, or of mail, negating the need for having vehicles carrying out such deliveries on our roads. The technology is so accurate that we need to start using it, cautiously, of course, and in the correct way. I definitely believe there is scope for further use of drones if we can keep the reckless and lawless few away from this niche.

What about the air safety concerns when it comes to Aviation including Drones – are there regulations in this respect?

EASA has finally produced a regulatory framework which will come into effect next year. Although we have had our own local procedures in force for the last years, a long awaited European-wide legal framework is well received and will provide much needed clarity. There will be need for more education and enforcement in the coming months.

The operation of drones requires a lot of self-discipline, because our officials cannot be everywhere monitoring all drones. Take the Gatwick drone incident last December – police were everywhere, doing their best to locate the drone which was sighted close to a runway, but they couldn’t find it. The disruption was enormous, costing millions.  A drone can be in one place for five minutes, and by the time it is reported, it would have left the scene.

There are other matters which need addressing to ensure safety in our airspace. Concert organizers need to understand the requirements for using lasers for instance. Unfortunately we are not programmed to think that way in Malta. People take so many things for granted and no one asks whether a permit is needed or whether an activity could have an adverse effect on others.  

We have published a document in this regard and look forward to engage with organizers to regulate rather than to stop these activities.  

The release of balloons needs to also be curtailed, if not banned, not only due aviation related problems but also environmental issues.

Anyone planning any activity or placing any structure in the air above us need to consult the directorate to verify whether this will hinder or obstruct aviation and whether a permit is required. This includes the sensitive area of fireworks.

Our aim is to regulate and make things safe for passengers and crew alike. With the amount of aircraft landing and taking off in Malta, it is becoming a very big struggle with the amount of fireworks being let off. Here, I feel it’s important that all sides engage in dialogue, and all concerned have to make a few compromises.

Yes, it is an old tradition, but there must be control. We must see how we can let off fireworks with the least disruption possible to the aviation industry. The last item I would like to mention is the issue of unruly passengers. This scourge needs to be fought and I am pleased to note that local police authorities have been instrumental in leading the way on several occasions. There needs to be zero tolerance on unruly behavior on board and with quick and decisive action Malta can continue to be an example in this area.   

With the increase in air traffic and general activity, how is Malta’s airport coping with it all?

Ironically, I wrote an opinion piece way back when the current terminal was open and had stated that the planning was not forward looking or ambitious enough. I think I have been proven right in this as MIA has become too small for our needs. We’re running out of the space we need to continue growing. I would like to see much more land close to the airport changed into aviation facilities from their current use. There are batching plants, farms, and so on around the airport, which could be easily relocated to make way for aviation activities.

I am to state that there is a constant dialogue with the current MIA management and I am very pleased with their approach and also their future plans. We have worked together on various occasions and not too long ago they accepted to provide a much-needed ring road around runway 23 threshold thus improving efficiency and reducing runway incursions. Co-ordination meetings are regular and very fruitful. I believe I can say there is mutual recognition and respect towards the different roles.  

At the end of the day, will one airport suffice, however?

Difficult question to answer. It is a fact that Malta’s only airport is too small for the activity being generated. In addition to the ever-increasing number of commercial flights coming to Malta we need to cater for the MRO facilities that need areas for parking and engine runs.  

Unfortunately, the general aviation community usually bear the full brunt of these and other runway restrictions. Priority is always given to commercial traffic - and this is rightly so - however, what about pilots who are paying for flight tuition, and who are left unable to fly because no runway is available? I believe we need to find an alternative site for general aviation thus making MIA function more efficiently whilst allowing general aviation to thrive and offer more training slots. Space is scare on such a small island, but we don’t need anything bombastic.

A grass runway might suffice, especially with Malta generally favorable weather. What about land reclamation? Could we build a small aviation island with a short runway? 

Obviously I speak more out of passion and I do recognise that proper feasibility studies could shoot down such ideas, but I think it is important to constantly look for alternatives and be innovative.

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