The Malta Independent 2 February 2023, Thursday
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Air Malta: Decisions aimed at saving jobs, not Robert Arrigo’s hotels - minister, PN MP replies

Neil Camilleri Saturday, 28 January 2017, 08:15 Last update: about 7 years ago

Tourism Minister Edward Zammit Lewis yesterday slammed Opposition MP Robert Arrigo, saying that decisions at Air Malta were being taken to save jobs, not the PN parliamentarian’s business interests.

Mr Arrigo, who is the PN’s spokesperson on small businesses and the self-employed, is a hotelier and also owns a travel agency.

Speaking in Parliament earlier this week he said the Deputy PM Louis Grech was to be congratulated if reports that he has been made politically responsible for Air Malta were true. “Let’s hope he can solve the problems at Air Malta which have been left unsolved for the last four years,” he said, in a clear dig at Dr Zammit Lewis.

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The minister’s impromptu reply to Mr Arrigo came yesterday while he was answering questions, by The Malta Independent, on the future of Air Malta.

Pointing out that he was still politically responsible for the national airline, and that he would not abdicate this responsibility, Dr Zammit Lewis said some decisions that needed to be taken at the national airline would not please everyone. “This includes those who want to maintain the status quo and those who want us to keep certain routes because it benefits their hotels.”

Dr Zammit Lewis did not once mention Mr Arrigo by name, even when pressed by this newspaper, but said it was easy to conclude who the person he was referring to was.

“We were criticized when we took the decisions to drop the Manchester and Frankfurt routes – decisions that were aimed at reducing Air Malta’s costs. Air Malta’s priority at the moment is not to serve hoteliers but to save itself. You can come to your own conclusions as to the person I am referring to – the person who attacked me over the past few days and said that all that I have done at Air Malta was wrong, despite the fact that, as an operator in the sector he is doing well from the tourist numbers we are attracting. If need be I will speak to him both in Parliament and outside,” Dr Zammit Lewis said. 

Some weeks ago, appearing on INDEPTH, the minister had insisted that the government had no intention of closing down Air Malta. Since then negotiations between Air Malta and Alitalia fell through.

Dr Zammit Lewis insisted that, despite this latest development, the government had not changed its stance on the national airline. “Air Malta remains a strategic asset. We still believe in the need to find a strategic partner and I can confirm that there is active interest.”

He pointed out that many major airlines, including Lufthansa, British Airways and KLM, were also seeking to enter partnerships and Air Malta was no different. “We are not special. Our aim is not only to stabilize Air Malta but also to experience growth in the coming years.”

We also asked whether the government could get into trouble with the European Commission over a breach of state aid rules. Last year, Cyprus Airways went bust after the EC ruled that state aid given to the airline was illegal and had to be paid back. The issue of state aid and Air Malta was recently raised by a Cypriot MEP in the European Parliament.

Dr Zammit Lewis yesterday said the comparison was “odious” and insisted that Malta was not in trouble with the EC. “Cyprus Airways had serious infringements on state aid going back several years. In its ruling on Cyprus Airways, the European Commission said, in a footnote, that Malta has always followed the guiding principles of the restructuring process since this started in 2009. We have no problem with the European Commission.”

The minister said that it was true that under state aid rules Malta could not request further assistance for Air Malta but said these rules “will certainly not stop the government from saving and reforming Air Malta.” 

In a reply posted on The Malta Independent comments board below, Mr Arrigo said that the minister is ill-informed.

"I own two hotels. The St Julians Bay and the Europa hotels. Both are leased out long term to outside third parties, and their lease expires in 2025.

"The minister is ill-advised or this just confirms his incompetence," Mr Arrigo said.

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