Malta Diary AIR MALTA – up and still flying and ready for a new take-off
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For years our National Airline AIR MALTA has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and extinction. Launched with a patriotic sense of pride between 1973 and 1974 it heralded a concept that hitherto a few years earlier would have been unimaginable – the minute islands of Malta and Gozo having their own national carrier – their own airline and even its own Maltese airline pilots and air crews!
I am proud to claim that back then, one of my first cousins, David Fenech, was in fact one of the very new pilots to be recruited!
There were the doubters who pooh-phooed the idea as an absurdity. How could AIR MALTA possibly compete with British Airways, Alitalia, Lufthansa and their like? From one quarter the step was described as “having birds filled with lead ready to drop out of the sky”. There were doubts that Maltese personnel were capable of ensuring safety as pilots, air crews and engineers and technicians, but proudly – touch wood – in 45 years of flying there has not been one single accident and long may it remain that way.
Indeed, today, Malta is a base for the servicing of Lufthansa aircraft as well as that of a number of other airlines and providing all engineering and technical inspections of incoming, refuelling and then departing aircraft.
Gradually, the concept gained strength, flexed its wings and was up and away. During the very early days I was flying into London, Heathrow from Geneva with Swissair and as we hit the tarmac we flashed past a parked AIR MALTA Boeing and when I saw the livery with the Malta Cross, I must admit a lump swelled in my throat and tears of pride swelled in my eyes.
That was almost 45 years ago and there were many ups and downs but certainly, over the last decade these have been mostly downs. Maintaining a fleet, meeting rising fuel and salary costs and stiff competition from scheduled and low-cost airlines all began to take their toll.
Sustainability began to veer and when the EU clamped down and said the Government must not continue with subsidies because this was against EU Competition Regulations, the dream seemed to be over.
The future indeed looked bleak – because there seemed to be no future and eventually extinction would be an enormous blow to national pride and prestige. Simultaneously the private sector dealing with tourism, hotels, restaurants, travel agencies etc urged the Government to “do something” because AIR MALTA had become essential to tourism.
However, the situation remained unsustainable and financial losses began to mount.
Five years ago a new administration was resoundingly voted in to resume national responsibility and one of their targets was that under no circumstances is the National Airline to be allowed to disintegrate.
Various measures were introduced including the possibility of a strategic partnership with a major airline as well as various economic cuts that met with much criticism. Still, there was no breakthrough and matters continued to look bleak.
Then, the Minister for Tourism Dr Konrad Mizzi decided a revolution was necessary. Not only must AIR MALTA not shrink, indeed it must expand and the ambitious target is that step by step the National Airline is to become the established air carrier of the Mediterranean. North African routes that had been curtailed were restored with plans for further routes into Central Africa and European routes increased.
The next predicament was to tackle the HR problem with the airline’s administration having to deal with five different labour unions representing the various jobs involved i.e. terminus handling, baggage loaders, ground staff including engineers and technicians, airline stewards and airline pilots.
This was slow and laborious work but last week the final and fifth Collective Agreement – that of the pilots, came to a successful conclusion and settled all issues for a number of years to come.
All these developments are a far cry from the years of despair that followed after pioneers Albert Mizzi as the first Chairman and Louis Grech as first CEO had left the airline when they reached retirement.
Thankfully, a new team, marshalled by highly-capable Minister Konrad Mizzi (who previously worked miracles in the country’s energy supply chain by throwing out use of heavy-fuel oil and substituting this with natural gas powered electricity supplies) and Chairman Charles Mangion, together with the consultancy services of lawyer and former President of the Republic of Malta, Dr George Abela, have righted the ship (!! – sorry for the pun), on an even keel.
AIR MALTA looks to the future with optimism as it now spreads its wings to become the Carrier of the Mediterranean.
“Give a piece of bread to a person capable of eating it’
If you want a job well done, give it to a person capable of doing it properly – to do a plumbing job engage a good plumber etc.