The Malta Independent 19 April 2024, Friday
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Requiem for a dream

Noel Grima Sunday, 31 March 2024, 06:05 Last update: about 19 days ago

By the time this article gets to be published Air Malta will be no more. It was a dream that sustained us through all these years but it has now come to its inevitable end.

Looking back, I think that the Maltese as a whole were rather lukewarm, at least at the beginning, on becoming an independent state but they were instantly won over by the prestige of having a national airline. Seeing the Air Malta plane come in at Heathrow or Gatwick airports made us all so proud. Like having a singer from Malta at Eurovision.

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I now realise I was there at the birth (well, almost) and I am still here at the death.

I was a guest on the inaugural flight to Munich in 1973. We were hosted by that remarkable man, Bertie Mizzi, who contrary to so many of his successors who were (and still are) paid hundreds of thousands of Euros, gave his time for free and yet led the airline to greater and greater success.

We stayed, I remember, at the Munich Hilton, next to the Englischer Garden. We were entertained to lunch in the revolving restaurant overlooking the Olympic Village where the previous year the massacre of Israeli athletes had happened.

The German market was huge and Air Malta hoped to fill its Boeings. At that time the airline depended on tour operators but this was rather fragile and easily swamped by the big operators who commanded huge numbers which bolstered tourism to Spain or Greece. Air Malta could never compete. Its brochures ended up hidden from the public in the tour operators’ shops. The airline remained Malta-centric, except for some timid forays outside the country.

Still, the Munich route remained strong, and in fact it is still ongoing.

Fundamentally Air Malta operated for most of its life in a monopolistic environment. It had no competition. Once the monopoly was removed it started to suffer: it could not survive in a competitive environment.

Later on I was present on that long night of brinkmanship between Tony Zarb, not yet GWU secretary general, and Air Malta chairman Joe Tabone (who was also blamed for the smaller planes which were later hived off to AzzurraAir). Joe Tabone stood firm regarding the union’s demands and was prepared to shut the airline until he was over-ruled by Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami.

The airline was saved but it still lost money. Each successive administration packed it with people recruited on the eve of elections. The pilots and engineers were up to mark but the bulk of the employees (those called indirect like at Malta Shipbuilding and even Malta Drydocks) were inefficient and loss-making.

In 2012, under pressure by the European Union, the PN administration, on its last legs, drew up a drastic reform plan which reduced most of the airline to a virtual one. This was never given time to succeed and, in fact, the next government (led by Joseph Muscat) blithely disregarded it.

I was then present at a muted celebration of the airline’s birthday in London with Minister Konrad Mizzi as host in the presence of most of the airline’s top officials through the years. The minister dreamt of flying to India and to the United States. Yet this vision was flawed, based on a profit we now know was unreal, and on huge payouts to pilots.

Even so, though we did not know this at the time, the minister had chosen one pilot to sort of manage or oversee the rest. Predictably, this raised opposition and the pilots never forgave him for this. Then the minister lost his post.

Then the government began to sell the airline bit by bit but the indirect component of the workforce was still preponderant. The airline had to be shut down.

Even before it died the airline had declined from being the carrier of the majority of people using Malta Airport to being just a bit player. Look on Flight Radar at any time and there would usually be four Ryanair flights to one by Air Malta.

The last time I used Air Malta was to fly to Israel and back in 2023 and the planes were full either way. Following the 7 October massacre, Air Malta has stopped going there while other airlines (the latest being Brussels Airlines this week) have resumed flying.

Malta was quite popular with Israeli tourists but with the airline being on its last legs it probably was not really interested in developing the route.

All this is now left to the new airline to inherit. But I wonder if the new airline will inherit the bad bits of Air Malta rather than the good bits – the preponderance of politics over business sense, promotions to the wrong people, no private business rules of discipline, etc. If I have to be explicit, all the signals given by the nascent airline are all bad. I hope, I sincerely hope, I will be proved wrong. That’s what I can wish for the new airline.

 

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