Air Malta is also ‘too big to fail’…

Oh well. At least, it doesn’t change that one part we all agree on. Remember? “Many will criticise [the Labour government’s] decisions”… oh, yes; and probably, for many generations to come…

Ladies and gentlemen: welcome aboard what may well turn out to be Air Malta’s last-ever flight, as our national airline.

This is your Captain speaking (well, not really. It’s actually Finance Minister Clyde Caruana, quoted in yesterday’s paper) and if I were you, I’d fasten your seatbelts… because we may be in for a little ‘turbulence’, here and there.

“The company needs a capital injection; but when and how this will happen depends on the decision the European Commission will make […] I will do nothing at the airline that does not enjoy the European Commission’s support. […] We cannot have an airline that flies to Brussels, Charles de Gaulle and Heathrow, and loses money. Many will criticise our decisions, but practices that make no business sense cannot continue.”

Right: that’s an awful lot for us to sink our teeth into; so I’ll start by pointing out the only two areas where there is bound to be widespread agreement.

The first, and most obvious, is where he says that: “many will criticise [his government’s] decisions”. Well, who could possibly argue with that? Certainly, not me (in fact, I agree with Clyde Caruana so much, that I’ll be doing nothing but ‘criticising his decisions’ for the rest of this article…)

The second is that: “practices that make no business sense cannot continue.” Here, admittedly, there may be a few random dissenters out there: mostly among the 500-or-so Air Malta employees who have already been (or are about to be) ‘off-loaded’, with the rest of the excess baggage…

But as for everyone else – including this newspaper, which has been commenting editorially on the ‘need to cut down expenditure at Air Malta’ for DECADES – it’s pretty much what we’ve been arguing, all along.

Yes, Minister: there are indeed certain ‘practices’ at Air Malta that simply ‘cannot continue’. And right at the top of the list, there’s the consistent tendency of successive governments – both Labour and Nationalist – to treat the national airline as if it were some kind of glorified ‘employment agency’, for the exclusive benefit of the party-in-government.

Then again, however: it is only these (and other) ‘bad practices’ that have to go…. and certainly not THE ENTIRE BLEEDING AIRLINE!

Yet if we follow Clyde Caruana’s logic to its only possible conclusion… that’s where we’ll all end up, you know. Let’s start with the only example of ‘bad practice’ that he himself actually mentioned: “We cannot have an airline that flies to Brussels, Charles de Gaulle and Heathrow, and loses money”...

Erm, sorry, but… ‘YES, WE BLOODY-WELL CAN!’

Honestly: I never thought I’d see the day, when I’d have to explain the basics of Socialism to a supposedly ‘Socialist’ Finance Minister. But it’s called “absorbing the cost of (or ‘subsidising’, if you prefer) an essential national service”…

… and it is also precisely what Clyde Caruana’s Labour government does in virtually every other sector; and even boasts about doing, at every single opportunity! (So much so, that yesterday’s main headline – on the same day, please note – was: ‘Finance Minister pledges €600 million spend next year to cushion higher energy, food prices’. Go figure…)

Naturally, it becomes a lot easier to justify this kind of subsidy, if you’re not also ‘maximising the cost, by needlessly over-bloating the service to the point of bankruptcy’. But again: the actual problem concerns the ‘over-bloating’… NOT the service itself (which is anything but ‘needless’).

What Clyde Caruana is effectively suggesting, however, is that the national service we are talking about here – whose strategic importance is something else I think we can all safely agree on – can only be provided, if it is ‘profitable’.

In other words: in order to survive, Air Malta would have to be managed along exactly the same lines as any other, purely commercial airline. And we all know what that means in practice, don’t we? “Route no longer profitable? Route no longer exists… simple as that.”

By which point, of course, there would be precious little difference between our supposedly ‘national airline’, and the service it provides… and all the cut-throat budget airlines it is in competition with (and which – let’s face it – are all ‘here today, gone tomorrow’.)

Now: just imagine, for a moment, that Clyde Caruana’s Labour government were to apply the same logic to ALL the essential services it is currently subsidising (and to the tune of much, MUCH more than the measly ‘150 million’ cash-injection required by Air Malta).

The National Health Service, for instance. How many of Mater Dei Hospital’s wards, do you reckon, currently ‘make a profit by the end of the fiscal year’? How many of the State-run Health Centres, all over the island, ‘pay out annual dividends, to their shareholders’? And would we even have something like a State-provided ‘Accident and Emergency Department’… if its business model required it to be just as ‘profitable’, as any old private hospital or clinic?

No, no, make no mistake: under those circumstances, we wouldn’t even have any NHS at all. And it’s the same with education: if government were to axe every State-run school that ‘failed to meet its annual financial targets’ – which is kind of difficult, really, when those schools don’t actually charge their students any tuition fees; and have no other (legitimate) means to actually ‘make any money’ – well, that would be the end of ‘Free Education for All’ right there, wouldn’t it? (Not to mention ‘the end of Maltese Socialism’, to boot…)

But wait… I detect a certain hint of scepticism – if not downright incredulity – even as you are reading this. Surely, I hear you ask, the service provided by Air Malta cannot realistically be compared to that of Mater Dei Hospital… or Malta’s free education system… or any other of the many, many areas where government DOES intervene financially (without, I might add, encountering any resistance from the European Commission)?

To which the short answer, I suppose, is… well, the same as it was before. “YES, YOU BLOODY-WELL CAN!’

For one thing, many people might be surprised to discover that Air Malta IS, in fact, already (indirectly) regarded as ‘part of the broader National Health Service’.

This is from its own website: “Air Malta is the only airline operating from Malta that carries both stretcher cases with patients that require urgent medical treatment abroad, as well as incubators for new-born babies. The national carrier is also regularly in contact with health authorities to carry medicines and other urgent medical material to and from Malta, sometimes even adjusting flight operations to accommodate this. Some of this material includes time-sensitive radioactive substances, required for around 40 cancer patients every week….”

The operative words there, by the way, are: ‘the ONLY airline’. Because let’s face it: it’s not exactly a service you’d expect airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet to willingly provide, is it? (Ryanair won’t even let you board with hand-luggage larger than ‘40cm x 25cm x 20cm’… unless, of course, it was purchased from its own outlets. Just imagine, then, how eagerly it would accept a consignment of ‘radioactive substances’… for no profit whatsoever.)

Air Malta, on the other hand, DOES do things like that: and I would say it does a little more, too.

At the risk of repeating a point I made quite recently: during the Libyan uprising of 2011 – when several Maltese citizens were stranded at Tripoli Airport; and bullets were flying all around them, instead of planes – it wasn’t exactly ‘Ryanair’, or ‘EasyJet’, which risked their own aircraft, pilots and crew (not to mention profits) to evacuate them…

No, it was Air Malta; and it could ONLY have been Air Malta… because no private airline – managed along purely commercial lines – can ever be expected to fulfil such an essential, emergency service… out of a sense of ‘civic duty’ alone.

For that, you need a NATIONAL airline, not a commercial one: yes, even if it means ‘operating certain routes at a loss’, from time to time; and even if it means ‘defying the European Commission (again), and to hell with the consequences’.

Because here is where I feel Clyde Caruana most deserves all the ‘criticism’, that he already knows he’s going to get: “I will do nothing at the airline that does not enjoy the European Commission’s support…”

Oh? Really? Funny Clyde Caruana should say that: at a time when his own government is actually doing quite a few things, that very emphatically do NOT ‘enjoy the European Commission’s support’ right now.

For instance: Malta insists on permitting the hunting of a protected (and endangered) species – the turtle dove – in open defiance of the Wild Birds Directive. This has already resulted in multiple infringement procedures by the Commission; and an ongoing case in the European Court of Justice.

It looks to me, then, that Clyde Caruana’s government simply ‘picks and chooses’ those moments when it either:

a) stands up for (what it believes to be) Malta’s interests, in the face of an intransigent European Commission, or;

b) backs away with its tail between its legs, dutifully mumbling: “Yes Sir, Yes Sir, Three Bags Full”, with every step...

Ah, but what issue did it actually choose, to incur the European Commission’s wrath (over and over again)?  Was it: ‘Saving Air Malta’… and the priceless, irreplaceable strategic value it undeniably represents? Or was it: ‘pandering to the hunters’ lobby, in its own bid for votes’?

Oh well. At least, it doesn’t change that one part we all agree on. Remember? “Many will criticise [the Labour government’s] decisions”… oh, yes; and probably, for many generations to come…