Updated | Air Malta €66 million in the red, Judge tells pilots to attempt resolution

ALPA union pilots in show of strength outside law courts to contest prohibitory injunction against right to take industrial action

Air Malta and its pilots attempt to find solutions to the dispute

Air Malta pilots and members of the union ALPA gathered at the Valletta law courts Friday morning to contest a prohibitory injunction filed by national airline Air Malta against their right to take industrial action.

Judge Silvio Meli’s courtroom was packed this morning, where he warned Air Malta and pilots union that an escalation of a dispute over conditions could have irreversible consequences.

Talks with potential strategic partners must be finalised by the end of October or Air Malta will no longer be able to operate, one of Air Malta’s lawyers, Aaron Galea Cavallazzi told the court.

He said the airline was €66 million in the red.

The court ordered both parties to make a fresh attempt to resolve the issue and scheduled a sitting for this purpose on Friday, 29 July. Both parties are to report on the progress of talks.

Galea Cavallazzi, who is appearing together with lawyer Louis De Gabriele for Air Malta, described the company as vulnerable, warning that any industrial action could threaten the future of the company. While respecting the pilot’s right to take industrial action, this was not the time for such measures, he said, pointing out that Air Malta was some €66 million in the red.

Lawyer Edward Gatt, on behalf of ALPA said that the threat of industrial action had been unfairly “amplified”.  Outside the court, Gatt explained that the parties had agreed to leave the injunction in place, “in order to reach a solution,”

ALPA is negotiating a contentious collective agreement reportedly tagged at €7 million over an above a staggering salary bill of €11 million for the airline, while Air Malta is in the midst of negotiations to sell off a minority stake of 49% to Alitalia.

The pilots yesterday did not deny reports in the press that they wanted a 30% increase on basic salaries over the next four years, but they are contesting demands to fly for longer hours in the month that would inevitably lead to redundancies amongst the 118-staff complement.

Air Malta management has long complained that pilots fly just 55 hours and far less than European counterparts. Flying longer hours in the month would reduce the airline’s salary bill, as it tries to make ends meet on the back of a €230 restructuring plan that saw it cut workforce, aircraft size, and routes to balance its books.

In comments to MaltaToday this morning, ALPA representative Captain James Fenech, said the injunction was intended to inhibit the pilots’ efforts at unionising.

Asked how Air Malta flight crew conditions compared to other airlines, he said it was a mixed bag. There were positives – such as the roster – and negatives especially with regards to leave. Pilots are entitled to 24 days of leave every year whereas other airlines allow up to 40 days of leave.

The pilots were upset at what was described as a “media smear” allegation that they only fly an average of 55 hours per month – well below the EU safety threshold.

“This average doesn’t differentiate between management pilots, who hardly fly at all, active pilots and those on sick leave,” Captain Fenech said.

Pilots had taken a €10,000 pay cut over the past two years because of what they say is the inefficient use of pilots, leading them to spend less hours in the air.

Pilot-pay partly depends on the amount of hours flown, he explained.

“On one hand, some pilots were being punished [by missing out on flights], whilst on the other hand our requests to be granted unpaid leave to fly with other airlines were being refused. Only one pilot had been allowed to do this and only after pressure from the union.

One pilot outside the courtroom said: “We want to work, but they are not giving us the flights. To add insult to injury they are using the lack of flying hours as a rod for our backs.”

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