The Malta Independent 20 May 2024, Monday
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Book review: Nostalgia for a success story does not explain failure

Noel Grima Sunday, 28 April 2024, 08:40 Last update: about 25 days ago

'Air Malta - 50 years of flight'

Author: Colonel Mark Said

2024

Pages: 208

 

It's 6am and I switch on God's eye in the sky a.k.a. FlightRadar 24 and its overview of the Maltese Islands.

There are many Ryanair flights leaving Malta at that early hour. And only one Air Malta plane - usually not switched on and also late. And more often than not, going to Catania.

This may be an incorrect account. Ever since Air Malta was shut down and replaced by its replacement, KM - Malta Airlines, I notice more KM flights at that time - to Rome, London and Paris. And KM flights keep coming when other incoming flights have stopped for the day.

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Obviously, we will have to wait till we get fuller results to see where the new airline is going. And, of course, the seat load factor. These are still early days.

This fully illustrated book is a deluge of nostalgia, written for the most part by some of the protagonists of the 50 years of Air Malta, pilots, cabin crew, engineers, ground staff.

They explain how they joined the new airline after finishing their school years and how they ended up spending more than 30 years in the new airline, facing innumerable challenges, learning new skills and competing against far bigger airlines.

Air Malta, Malta's largest foreign revenue earner, provided career opportunities new to the island, introduced new technological know-how and for a time fuelled the sustained growth of the tourist industry and commerce.

Ever since it started operations, Air Malta has consistently delivered on the promise that a visit to Malta started the minute one stepped onto the plane - a claim that no other airline flying to Malta could make.

Then the market was liberalised and the low-cost airlines came in. Air Malta lost its monopoly and Malta got far more tourists than ever before. And Air Malta went into a decline that proved to be fatal.

The book tells us facts we may not be aware of.

For instance one thing we are thankful for is that Air Malta had an enviable safety record. But on 14 November 1977 a Boeing 720B of Pakistan International Airways was performing touch-and-go at Luqa Airport when the nose unit of the plane came off and fell to the ground bouncing three times between rows of parked RAF planes. That stretch of the runway was covered with foam and the plane skidded for 200 metres before coming to a halt.

On 11 September 1990 (ominously 9/11) a B727 in Air Malta colours leased to Air Malta by a Peruvian airline with 18 persons on board crashed and was lost on its way to Gander Airport in Newfoundland, Canada.

On 19 February 1992 an Air Malta Airbus aborted take-off when its nose wheels turned sideways and the plane sustained damage. It then stopped safely.

And lastly on 19 January 2004, an A320 going to Catania had to cancel the flight when it was involved in an accident with a floodlight pylon.

Then there was terrorism. On 9 June 1997 an Air Malta Boeing 737, on its way to Istanbul, was hijacked and diverted to Cologne with 88 persons including a baby and six crew members. The two Turkish hijackers gave themselves up to the German police six hours later. They had demanded the release of Mehmet Ali Agca, who had tried to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981.

On 13 October 1981 a bomb exploded as it was being unloaded from an Air Malta Boeing 737 just after it parked in Cairo International Airport. Three Egyptian loaders were killed and the Air Malta representative was injured.

Air Malta owes its genesis to Dom Mintoff's fertile brain, realizing that with partition in Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, PIA had a lot of spare capacity. The new airline was born, bred and nurtured in that spare capacity.

The first years of the new airline were heady years as Air Malta set up a lot of subsidiary companies such as Belle Air Holidays Ltd, Sterling Services Ltd, Medallion Holidays Ltd, Holiday Malta (UK), Medisle Holidays in Pembroke, Selmun Palace Hotel, Tigne Development Co. Ltd (including the Crowne Plaza Hotel, the Country Hotel or Airport Hotel, the Hal Ferh Holiday Complex, the White Rocks Holiday Complex, Air Supplies and Catering, Holiday Service Company Limited, Middle Sea Insurance, Medavia and others.

The company was made to divest itself from what was called "non-core business" in the 2009 restructuring exercise, which intended to save the airline, but then failed.

However, the airline fathered Lufthansa Technic, perhaps its most strong inheritance. Indeed, its early success does not explain its later failure.

 

The limited edition book will be available from the Malta Aviation Museum in a week's time. All proceeds will be going to the Museum Foundation


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