The Malta Independent 27 May 2024, Monday
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Civil aviation in Malta: Air Malta – The end of an era

Sunday, 21 April 2024, 08:20 Last update: about 2 months ago

Air Malta, the national airline’s first flight took place on 1 April 1974 and the last one on the night of Saturday, 30 March of this year. After 50 years in operation, this feature looks at Air Malta’s history touching also upon passenger aviation travel since 1948. Written by Anthony Zarb Dimech

Maltese passenger aviation travel was still in its infancy after the Second World War and depended wholly on small British private airline firms. Several small private airlines which emerged in Malta, include The Malta Instone Airline between 1946-47, BAS (Malta) Ltd in 1947 and later Malta Airways in 1950.

Noteworthy landmarks in the development Malta's passenger aviation travel, prior to the setting up of Air Malta, include the following:

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  • The cessation of BOAC fights to Malta on 18 December 1947 resulting in a loss of thousands of passengers overnight. This cessation of services led to the rise of regional aviation.
  • Back in 1946, Cassar & Cooper had bought a stake in BAS (Malta) Ltd, which operated flights to the Mediterranean. Air Malta Ltd, which was a subsidiary of BAS, had been set up in November 1948.
  • This licence was then transferred to Malta Airways, which started operations as Malta Airlines in association with BEA. The first ever daily service between Malta and London took place on 19 April 1950.
  • New air terminal at Luqa inaugurated in 1958.

 

Several inconclusive efforts were made in the 1960s to set up a Maltese airline, and a promising venture was initiated in 1969, however, the project stopped, when an expatriate left the Malta scene abruptly.

It is noted that since 1948, civil aviation in Malta was left in the hands of a foreign carrier (Malta Airways) and the licence of this carrier was to expire on 1 April 1971.

 

An environment of challenges

The environment for the setting up of Air Malta was made difficult because until that time no Maltese nationals had been in any way involved in the management of an operating airline.

Air Malta was established during a period when Malta was still in the process of developing its tourism, manufacturing and commercial sectors economically. It was also a delicate period because Malta's dependency on income from being used as a British military base was coming to an end.

In this context, the setting up of a national airline was seen as a stimulus for economic diversification in the fields of tourism and commerce.

The early 1970s also witnessed a global oil crisis, impacting Malta as well. Added to this was the cut-throat competition the airline was facing from larger and well-established airlines. The airline also faced the challenge of building trust in its prospective clients and other stakeholders. This warranted a change in mentality to ensure that the airline would be profitable and sustainable.

 

Setting up of the national airline

The deadlock to set up Air Malta was made through an agreement made with PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) to join the Air Malta project in 1971 for the training of groups of Maltese youths as ground engineers, flight engineers, pilots, flight despatchers, cabin crew and other disciplines including clerical staff in several departments.

Originally, the management team comprised individuals from both Pakistan and Malta, until full control was transferred to Maltese leadership. Another agreement made with PIA was in leasing two Boeing 720.

Air Malta Company Limited was registered as a commercial company on 30 March 1973, and the day of its first operations took place on 1 April 1974. Shareholding was made by a 51% government shareholding, 20% PIA shareholding and 29% shareholding by Maltese investors.

In 1976, Air Malta invested in projects aimed at developing public land, such as transforming areas like Għajn Tuffieħa and Selmun into tourist facilities.

Air Malta's pioneering efforts are also to be appreciated against the background of a time when no airline managerial expertise existed in Malta. There were no Maltese nationals holding licences as airline pilots or engineers or who were trained in airline finance, marketing and the many other areas of activity requiring specialisation.

 

Chairmanship

One cannot fail to mention and pay tribute to the fact that throughout the many years of continued success Air Malta was under the capable chairmanship of Albert Mizzi whose business acumen was in the forefront in leading a team of men and women that included the board of directors, management and staff. Mizzi remained chairman for 19 years.

 

Other notable dates and landmarks

  • 1978 - First Maltese pilots
  • 1978 - The 20% shareholding of PIA was purchased by the Maltese government
  • 1985 - First Maltese airline captain
  • 1988 - First Maltese woman pilot (Marthese Desira)
  • 1990 - Helicopter link to Gozo from Malta between 1990 and 2004
  • 1997 - Crew and ground handling composed of an all-women team
  • 2000 - Lufthansa Technik Malta founded as joint venture between Lufthansa Technik and Air Malta
  • 2018 - Airbus A320neo were introduced over a five-year period as part of a renewal of Air Malta's fleet
  • In 18 years since its inception, Air Malta had purchased 20 aircraft (five Boeing 720, six Boeing 737 200, two Airbus 320, three Boeing 737 300 and four Avro Liners). By 2002 all aircraft were of the Airbus type

Air Malta stared off with seven routes in 1974 (Birmingham, Manchester, London, Frankfurt, Paris, Rome and Tripoli). With time, the number rose to 50 countries.

 

Bankruptcy and closure

The setting up of any airline is not intended to be an economic burden on the government. Profitability is the way forward. After registering a loss in its first year (1974), Air Malta registered a profit in its second year. Air Malta gradually became a household name and one of the main employers on the island. Air Malta's valid contribution to an economically independent Malta is remarkable and its importance in this field can never be overemphasised enough.

After a combination of economic and financial challenges in recent years and the EU's refusal to allow state aid to Air Malta, Air Malta was declared bankrupt and liquidated. The Maltese government had no other choice but to close it.  

The aspiration is for the newly-established national airline, KM Malta Airlines Ltd, to replicate the success of Air Malta, achieving profitability and sustainability while significantly contributing to Malta's economic growth and development with flying colours.


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