Pilots blame lack of flights on lower flying hours

Air Malta pilots union says it has not accepted a 5% salary increase in exchange for flying 75 hours a month

The pilots union president said that all that was standing in the way of pilots flying more was them having more flights scheduled by the company
The pilots union president said that all that was standing in the way of pilots flying more was them having more flights scheduled by the company

Air Malta’s pilots fly less hours than their counterparts with other airlines because there aren’t enough flights to go around, not because of their collective agreement, according to James Fenech, a captain and president of ALPA, the pilots’ union.

Fenech was reacting to comments by tourism minister Konrad Mizzi last week, who is insisting that pilots fly more hours, and closer to the European legal limit, for Air Malta to become more competitive.

However, Fenech said that as things stand, the only obstacle to pilots flying more hours was the number of flights they were assigned.

“It is often reported that we are flying 50 hours a month as if it’s the fault of the collective agreement. If there are no flights to operate, we can’t fly more,” he said.

The maximum allowed for pilots to fly is 75 hours a month, but the bone of contention between the Maltese government and ALPA is how pilots will be remunerated for the increased hours: in 2016 the union demanded a 30% salary increase and backdated increments, but Mizzi is driving a hard bargain with an increase of 5%

Fenech said it was “difficult to calculate” what fleet size and route network could guarantee more flying hours. “If Air Malta increases the frequency of flights to destinations further away from Malta, like the UK, it will be possible for pilots to fly 75 hours a month. If the frequency increases to destinations which are closer to Malta like Catania, it will be a little more difficult unless they are coordinated so a pilot can fly multiple sectors a day.”

When scheduling their flights, airlines must take into account flight time limitations, as well as the time when the pilot reports for duties, apart from any alterations to Air Malta’s flight scheduling system for pilots to start flying multiple flights or sectors a day.

Fenech said that while some might argue that 75 hours a month is not much, this was the maximum permitted under EU regulations. “Moreover this does not include pre- and post-flight duties, as well as standby and training time,” Fenech said.

Fenech has insisted that talks with Air Malta management over a long-term collective agreement are going well and that proceedings were “cordial”, saying that “practically all issues”, including flight-time limitations, had already been ironed out. What remains was a “just salary”.

But the pilots’ union is saying that Air Malta has its “workings” all wrong, having miscalculating how much money it would be saving over the duration of the agreement by changing the definition for a pilot’s off-day

“One of the most significant changes is the reduction in the length of an off-day,” Fenech said. “A normal office worker stops working at 4.00pm and has a full day off and then starts again at 8.00am the next day – a 40-hour period. A pilot’s off-day could be as short as working till midnight having one free calendar day and reporting for work at 6.00am the next day,” he explained. Previously, an off-day at minimum stretched from 10.00pm to 8.00am.

Other changes, he said, include the reduction of the rest between flights, which has been reduced from 15 to 12 hours, as well as “changes in the amount of consecutive duties” pilots can work.

Other issues include the payment for points obtained for each hour of flying, which is paid over and above a pilot’s basic salary, which amounts to two-thirds of the total salary.

Fenech has confirmed that Air Malta was offering only a 5% increase in salaries, but has not confirmed whether it has been accepted.

When questioned by this newspaper as to whether a 30% increase was realistic, tourism minister Konrad Mizzi stressed that pilots’ wage demands needed to be sustainable and that talks on a new collective agreement needed to take place within the context of a national airline whose financial situation was “dire”.

But Fenech said that pilots were not after a 30% increase in basic salary. Still he would not be drawn into how big an increase was being suggested. “It’s difficult to give a fixed figure because it depends on many factors, and the increase one pilot will benefit from might not be the same as that of another,” he said.

Air Malta’s pilots have long since contended that compared to other pilots flying similar aircraft with legacy airlines, they are significantly underpaid. In fact, Fenech said that even with a pay rise, Air Malta’s pilots would still be making “significantly less” than their counterparts and that this would still leave the airline at an advantage over competing carriers in the payroll department.

The last agreement between ALPA and Air Malta was signed in 2012 and amounted to a 4.25% deal that saw pilots’ salaries increase cumulatively by 3% each year, covering the period between 2012 and 2015.

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