Update 2 | Pilots’ €750 ‘bonus’ for cancelled leave day costing Air Malta thousands

Informed sources say 'no progrees' registered in morning meeting between Tourism Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and pilots' association ALPA

An agreement with Alitalia, the Italian national airline, to acquire a 49% minority stake in the Maltese national airline is hinging on guarantees that will improve productivity from Air Malta’s pilots, this newspaper has been told.

And in the crosshairs of negotiators, is a handsome ‘perk’ that costs the airline tens of thousands of euros during peak months if just one day of leave is reduced when more pilots are needed.

It is part of a pilots’ collective agreement where Air Malta ends up paying €750 to each of its 118 pilots if just one day of leave is struck off when there are not enough pilots to fly planes during busy months. It can cost up to €82,000 in one peak month alone.

On Monday morning, ALPA held a meeting with Tourism Minister Edward Zammit Lewis on Monday morning. "We have no comment to make at this stage," ALPA president Dominic Azzopardi told MaltaToday.

However, informed sources said that no progress was registered.

Air Malta allots seven days of leave for every four-month period to each of the pilots. Apart from 26 days of annual leave, pilots get a statutory ‘day off’ of 38 hours’ rest after flying: that means that on average, pilots fly some 56 hours a month, far less than European counterparts. Airline management says they should fly at least 75 hours a month.

But when a substantial number of pilots request their leave during a peak summer month, like September, Air Malta can be forced to strike off a day of leave to keep up with the busy workload: the penalty for that is €750 paid to each each pilot on that month’s work roster, which works out at €250 daily for three days, in lieu of the cancelled leave day.

“Failure to reach an agreement with the pilots will lead to a breakdown in talks with Alitalia,” said a senior government official who is close to the negotiating team being led by George Abela, President emeritus.

The airline is fending off demands to raise pilots’ salaries, which range from €65,000 to well over €106,000 for a flight captain, but who, unlike European airline standards, fly an average of just 56 hours a month. That is far less than the maximum 900 hours per calendar year set by the European Aviation Safety Agency.

The annual salary bill is close to €10 million, the source said.

“These are short-haul pilots, with a good salary, who traditionally do not work anything close to the maximum 100 hours in 28 days,” the source said, echoing complaints by Air Malta’s former CEO, Peter Davies, who said ALPA pilots treated Air Malta as their ‘private flying club’.

“Air Malta cannot be held to ransom by the pilots anymore. There are too many for the routes we serve, none of the routes is long-haul, and all the pilots sleep at their homes at the end of a flight. Individually, many pilots have the time to set up thriving businesses on the side. Alitalia will not proceed if we do not come to terms with these realities.”

As part of the negotiations, the pilots' association, led by Pilot Domenic Azzopardi, is presently in a meeting with tourism minister Edward Zammit Lewis.

Alitalia tells Air Malta: deal dependent on outcome with pilots

Air Malta’s leverage in the talks with Alitalia is presently limited by its own role as a national airline that serves Malta and its main tourism markets in Europe. While this is crucial to Malta’s tourism industry, which generates one in seven jobs for the island, critics fear Alitalia wants to turn the airline into a feeder airline.

The national airline’s main bargaining chip is widely believed to be the unique potential of its London Heathrow slots, which it has held since the 1970s. These allow it the edge over low-cost airlines like Ryanair, which are another main transport provider for the UK market.

The Malta Tourism Authority spends some €7 million every year from its government subvention into so called ‘route development schemes’, payments to airlines – like Ryanair, amongst others – which fly under-served routes and secondary airports. It translates into a discounted landing fee for such airlines.

Yesterday the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) deplored a court application filed by Air Malta to stop the union from taking industrial action, calling it “a clear threat to the right of free association of workers.”

They have accused Air Malta’s chairperson, Maria Micallef, of writing a “malicious” piece against their interests, after it was revealed in The Times that they were demanding €50,000 annually in salary raises.

“Air Malta pilots have long been held in high esteem in terms of the standards of work ethic and a track history with a high security record level which speaks for itself,” the union said yesterday. “The same cannot be said of the performance of the Air Malta management.”

The pilots’ union has been a major critic of Air Malta’s restructuring efforts ever since a €230 million deal was inked with the European Commission to scale down the bloated airline and turn it around to a profit-making business by 2016. That ship has long sailed away, which is why Malta hopes Alitalia can bail out the national airline.

ALPA has accused Air Malta’s management of downsizing its aircraft fleet to the detriment of the airline’s market share, and claims senior management enjoys remuneration packages that would make the public balk.

“We’re disappointed at the way negotiations have been handled, even more now that confidential documentation such as the minutes of these meetings, as yet unapproved by ALPA, have been made public,” the union said yesterday.

The union will go to court on 22 July to contest the prohibitory injunction against any further industrial action. The pilots have already toyed with action of their own after reporting for work dressed-down and without their uniforms. “ALPA has lost its trust in the current management of Air Malta,” the union said, showing no signs of reprieve for this new feud.

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