Bringing Air Malta back from the dead… just to watch it die again

And if that really does prove to be the case: well, do I even need to go on? ‘KM Malta Airlines’ would have about as much chance as a turtle-dove in Spring, of ever flying out of Malta in one piece

It’s been a while since I flew out of Malta on any airline – and an even longer one, since the airline was Air Malta - so I’m not sure if it’s still the same old public announcement that greets passengers as they board.

In the old days, however, it used to sound a little like: “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Welcome aboard Flight KM3046 to [insert destination of your choice]. As part of this flight will be over water…”

Huh? Can you repeat that last part again slowly, please? ‘Part of this flight will be over water’, you say? Well, I’ll be danged! Who would ever have worked out that one out, huh? Here we all are, living on what we all know perfectly well is an ‘island’ – which, in turn, is defined as a ‘parcel of land, surrounded on all sides by WATER’ – yet it seems we all need to be reminded of this fact, every single time we leave Malta for any foreign destination… on what is generally known as an ‘OVERSEAS’ flight, for crying out loud!!

I mean, come on! How ignorant did those old Air Malta pilots even think we all were, anyway? Which part of the word ‘overseas’, specifically, did they think we couldn’t understand..?

OK, rant officially over! (I’ve been meaning to get that off my chest for over 40 years, you know.) Now that I’ve finally said it, however: well, I am suddenly assailed by a niggling little doubt. Who knows? Maybe those pilots did have a small point, after all. Maybe we really DO need to be constantly reminded, of even the most self-evident realities that surround us, as a nation… given how often we act as though they simply don’t exist, at all.

Naturally, this brings me to why I’m even writing about Air Malta – or, to be more precise, the new ‘national/non-national’ airline we cooked up to replace it with – for starters. This morning, we awoke to the news that: ‘KM Malta Airlines to offer subsidised flights to voters for June elections’.

In the article, Finance Minister Clyde Caruana confirmed that: “Maltese voters living abroad will be offered subsidised flights to enable them to vote in Malta on June 8”; and also that ‘“the government will pay for the subsidies.” (Because it seems we are also too dumb to understand what the word ‘subsidised’ means, without an official government explanation...)

But never mind that, because already we are confronted by the first of many puzzling questions. Excuse me for asking, but… wasn’t ‘government subsidy’ (or the lack thereof) one of the main reasons why the original Air Malta airline was eventually forced to shut down, altogether? And weren’t we also told, at the launch of the new airline, that ‘KM Malta Airlines’ would: a) be run on strictly commercial lines, and; b) avoid repeating the same mistakes that led to its predecessor’s untimely bankruptcy?

OK, tell you what. Let’s rewind a little, and go over the sequence of events culminating in the demise of Air Malta. As I recall, it went something like this:

•    Malta joined the EU in 2004;

    From 2004 onwards, the EU politely tapped us on the shoulder, saying: “Sorry, but you can’t just keep throwing millions in tax-payers’ money at a failed national airline, in defiance of all the Union’s competition laws. It’s called ‘State Aid’, and that sort of thing is now ILLEGAL…”

•    … to which Maltese governments (both Nationalist and Labour) have always replied: “U ejja! U please! Can’t we make a small exception, just this once? Look, we have a whole new restructuring plan in place (and it will only cost the taxpayer 55 million this time, promise!)”

•     to which the EU consistently replied…

Well, you can work out the rest for yourselves. But for what it’s worth, the short version of the EU’s answer was: “NO, dammit! (Just get it into your head, OK? And don’t bloody ask again!)”

In a nutshell, all Malta’s proposals for structural reform, over the past 20 years, were simply thrown out of the Berlaymont’s window… and the Maltese government was eventually compelled to scrap its national airline, in favour of one [that was supposed to be] modelled along ‘private sector’ lines.

And yet, less than a month since KM Malta Airline was officially launched, we now have the Finance Minister telling us that - for the umpteenth time - he is going to defy the EU’s ban on State Aid, by throwing public money [Note: at the last election, the Air Malta subsidy cost the taxpayer 1.8 million] at what is supposed to be a ‘private, commercially-run’ corporation…

… effectively undermining the entire raison d’etre of even launching this new ‘national/non-national airline’, in the first place.

So, um, the question almost asks itself, doesn’t it?  If we are going to treat KM Malta Airlines, right from its inception, in exactly the same way as we had earlier treated Air Malta – that is to say, as ‘a glorified cash-cow/political-problem-solver for the government of the moment’ – doesn’t it also become INEVITABLE, that the new airline will also suffer precisely the same fate as the old one?

But wait, there’s more. Leaving aside that Clyde Caruana is clearly trying to use the same old strategy with KM Airlines, as he (and others before) him had already tried, and FAILED, with Air Malta…

… this time round, there is also the small question of WHY he is so keen to squander public money, on such a manifestly extravagant (and therefore, unnecessary) measure. And to be fair to Caruana: it’s not a question we could have realistically asked about all his earlier efforts to save the national airline, is it?

No, indeed. As I recall, the Maltese government had weighty, compelling arguments – involving issues like national security, no less – to back up its consistent whining of: “U ejja! U Please!”, etc. There were, in brief, valid justifications for Malta to request (and be granted) a ‘small exemption’ from the EU’s competition laws: ranging from the island’s widely-known connectivity issues; its territorial limitations; its vulnerability to international competition; its ability to respond to national (and international) emergencies; and many, many more.

On this occasion, however? What justification could there possibly be, for Malta’s government to grant such a spectacularly unfair (not to mention ILLEGAL) commercial advantage to one particular airline, over all the other private ones servicing the same routes… thus automatically shooting down any hope of a ‘privately-managed, commercially-run’ airline, of the kind that KM Malta Airlines was all along meant to be?

Let’s go by elimination. It cannot be because the people who will benefit from all these cheap flights – i.e., the Maltese nationals residing in Brussels, and other parts of Europe – were actually asking for any such State subsidy, themselves.

Quite the contrary. The same article also states that: “Maltese people living abroad have repeatedly appealed to the government to make voting easier for them, suggesting proxy voting, postal voting or overseas ballot boxes, which are used in other countries…”

And let’s face it, folks: they have a point. For while ‘cheap Malta flights’ are obviously going to preferable to ‘more expensive ones’: it would still be a whole lot cheaper for those people to just do what we all do here in Malta – at absolutely no cost, whatsoever - and simply ‘walk to the nearest polling station, on their own two feet’).

The question therefore remains: why, exactly, is Clyde Caruana so eager to threaten the future survival of our new, fledgling ‘national/non-national airline’, by repeating all the mistakes of the past? (Oh, and in case you were wondering: I call it that, because it’s ‘national’ when we want to be… and ‘non-national’, when we want the EU to think that it isn’t. Simple as that, really.)

Now: at this point, I have to confess that I am very far from being an expert in European aviation affairs, myself; and for all I know, there could conceivably be a perfectly valid answer – or even several - to the above question.

And I honestly hope there is, too: because failing that, we’d be left to conclude that the only reason why Clyde Caruana has so quickly reneged on his earlier promise, to ‘not interfere with the internal operations of KM Malta Airlines’ (in the same way as governments had always done with Air Malta), is that…

… well, it would spare his government all the hassle of effecting the tiniest of little changes to Malta’s Electoral Laws… and allow overseas Maltese nationals to simply vote in their own current countries of residence, like anywhere else in the civilised world.

And if that really does prove to be the case: well, do I even need to go on? ‘KM Malta Airlines’ would have about as much chance as a turtle-dove in Spring, of ever flying out of Malta in one piece. It would, effectively, be ‘grounded’, before it ever even had a chance to take off.

In other words: we would have brought Air Malta back from the dead… just to watch it die before our very eyes, all over again. So like I said earlier, folks: those old Air Malta pilots may have been onto something, after all, when they talked to us like we were a nation of complete imbeciles…