Updated | Air Malta pilots injunction upheld for demotions, but not for redundancies

No agreement has yet been brokered between Air Malta and the Airline Pilots Association as the court dealt with pilot union ALPA's request for an injunction to stop redundancies and demotions

Air Malta has taken a hit like most airlines because of the coronavirus pandemic
Air Malta has taken a hit like most airlines because of the coronavirus pandemic

Updated at 9:09 with court decree

A judge has partially upheld a request for an injunction against Air Malta filed by pilots’ association ALPA.

The Airline Pilots Association wanted to stop the redundancies of 69 pilots and the demotion of others as the airline seeks to mitigate losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Justice Toni Abela heard lawyers Andre Portelli for ALPA and Ron Galea Cavallazzi for Air Malta exchange arguments over the injunction in a lengthy court sitting on Friday.

The judge ruled that the request for the injunction is to be upheld with regards to demotions, but not for redundancies. A company that has fallen on hard times financially has a right to terminate jobs as long as it follows the basic principles of industrial relations, said the court.

But with respect to demotions, the judge said the plaintiffs had succeeded in proving that they had a prima facie right to safeguard, as this would affect their future employability.

Earlier

Sources close to government said that in a last ditch attempt the airline has given ALPA a proposal that would see all pilots being retained with all work shared equally. This would results in a wage that would approximately equate to half what pilots earn now.

The sources said the union is expected to take the new proposal to its members next week.

However, on Friday both sides presented their arguments in court.

“The redundancies, the unilateral action and the variation of the contractual obligations - there was no form of consent or affirmation by the association to allow these demotions,” Portelli argued, accusing the airline of taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to force captains to accept worse conditions.

Captain Matthew Degiorgio, a pilot with 20 years flying experience, the last two as a captain, told the court that he, too, had received his termination notice recently.

“On 7 April, collective redundancies started. ALPA started discussions with the company and was told that 108 pilots were going to have their employment terminated,” Degiorgio said, adding that the discussions were about non-COVID related issues.

An injunction was filed on 7 May, which prompted a fresh round of talks without lawyers present. These were about the special purpose vehicle and other structures to help efficiency, he said.

“Notary Charles Mangion presided these discussions and made us sign a non-disclosure agreement before,” Degiorgio said.

He told the court the union was supposed to receive a draft agreement but instead pilots received notices of termination that were sent late at night.

“Air Malta made our terminations effective midnight of 8 June. We were denied access to our rosters and demoted… there was no prior notice and for us it was a surprise,” he said.

The airline’s decision meant that from five members on the committee, three were terminated and one was demoted.

“We had been given assurances by Economy Minister Silvio Schembri that nobody would be fired until discussions were over, and that packages would be market standard… but two days later we started receiving termination notices,” Degiorgio said.

Chief Human Resources Officer for Air Malta, James Genovese also took the witness stand. He revealed that pilots were still being paid as captains despite being rostered as first officers.

The ALPA lawyer pointed out that the very fact that a pilot accepted to fly as a first officer would necessitate his retraining to become a captain again and this would place them at the bottom of the seniority list.

Genovese said the demotions were regulated by the collective agreement. The airline had not asked the pilots if they agreed to it beforehand, he replied to a series of rapid fire questions by Portelli, and neither had they consulted with the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations before the demotions.

“It was costing us between €5,000 and €7,000 for every flight. I cannot pay that amount for 10 hours’ work. We aren’t doing flights except repatriation flights,” the airline official said.

Genovese said those being kept on were the most senior pilots, explaining that 30 pilots had no change to their conditions, 32 had been demoted and 69 made redundant.

The criteria used in the redundancies was last in, first out.

The pilots argued that they weren’t given the criteria for choice and could not determine whether there was discrimination in the airline’s choices.

One demoted former captain, Carmel Borg Guiliano, explained that his training would be thrown away if he was demoted.

“If I choose to move to another airline, I can only be taken on as a first officer. I would have to be given all the training as a captain all over again. The fact that they had been demoted would reflect badly on their reputations,” he explained.

Galea Cavallazzi confirmed to the court that the demoted captains suffered no decrease in their basic pay or allowances.

What was happening in the wider world today and the aviation industry in particular could not be ignored, he argued, insisting that the terminations and demotions were required.

“The choice was either be demoted to first officer or be terminated and end up jobless. Now if you don’t want to fly as a first officer and prejudice your logbook, you are free to leave. I don’t think the prejudice is such that it would affect your job prospects… Air Malta didn’t change your conditions of work,” he insisted.

The court adjourned the sitting for a decree in chambers.

Earlier, a government source told MaltaToday that the company was “expecting” the pilots’ union to accept a temporary suspension of collective agreement rights until Air Malta makes it out of the financial storm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The company has asked ALPA  for “a genuine understanding” of the situation to help the airline make it out successfully from this turbulent period, the source added.

Air Malta is trying to secure a sustainable operation over the next 12 months until the tourism sector regains momentum.

“Air Malta management is positive that ALPA will understand the situation and cooperate with the company but a cold shoulder at this final hour could threaten the company’s immediate future,” the source said.

 

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