Air Malta on collision course with its pilots once again

Despite signing a new collective agreement in January Air Malta has been forced back to the negotiation table to iron out issues related to pilots' working conditions

Air Malta has once again found itself locked in talks with its pilots over their working conditions, despite both parties having agreed to a new collective agreement earlier this year.

An agreement was signed in January after months of tense negotiations between ALPA, the pilots’ union, and the airline. The pilots were the last of the airline’s workers to agree to a new deal after similar agreements were reached with other groups of employees.

Tourism minister Konrad Mizzi maintained throughout that the new agreements needed to be signed by the start of the year in order for Air Malta to have the flexibility needed to increase its route network.

Airline management sources who spoke to MaltaToday said the latest disagreements were rooted in various factors ranging from those related with the collective agreement, to tensions arising from the fact that the government last year set up a new airline to hold Air Malta’s London landing slots, which pilots fear could be used against them in the future.

They stressed that the basis of the collective agreement signed in January was that pilots would offer greater flexibility and fly more hours, in accordance with internationally established limits, in return for salary increases.

The sources said that after pilots had got their salary increase, management was expecting them to be more cooperative when it came to solving rostering problems with the airline. Instead, they said, there had been an increase in the number of pilots availing themselves of sick leave in recent months.

Since the start of the year, the airline has pursued an aggressive growth strategy, adding a number of new routes to its network and almost doubling the utilisation of each of its aircraft.

While the increased flying hours could result in more fatigue, the sources said that the management were viewing the increase in sick leave as an intentional and indirect way of carrying out industrial action.

“The increase in flights has brought along new challenges that the Air Malta more or less acknowledges and is in talks with the union about,” the sources said, pointing out that the company had started the process of recruiting new pilots to ensure fewer instances where it was short of flight crew.

The sources said Air Malta was planning on having the necessary crew compliment by February, once the recruitment process was completed and pilots were trained accordingly.

Cancelled flight cost airline €200,000

The situation took a turn for the worse on Wednesday when a scheduled Paris flight was cancelled due to a lack of available crew. The cancellation is estimated to have cost Air Malta something in the region of €200,000, the sources said noting that it wasn’t an insignificant figure especially when considering its current financial position.

Air Malta said the flight had been cancelled because of an “unprecedented number of pilots reporting sick concurrently”.

On its part, ALPA said that from a “preliminary and limited investigation” it had carried out, it transpired that on the day in question two pilots had reported sick in the morning, and could not report for duty.

It said that a third pilot who was meant to be on standby duty had been on sick leave for over a week.

“Pilots are legally bound not to fly when sick and may only report for work again when cleared by a doctor.” the union said. “An Air Malta appointed Aeromedical Examiner visited the pilots concerned and certified they were unfit to fly.”

The union said that following the rapid increase in flights operated by Air Malta, “without the necessary increase in pilot numbers, there was an alarming increase of instance where the company asked pilots to operate flights illegally”.

“There is also an alarming increase in pilots reporting fatigued due to ridiculous roster patterns, “the union said, adding that when this had been brought up with the airline’s Chief Officer Flight operations it was told that pilots should check their own flight time regulations and limits.

“Taking into consideration that Air Malta was asking crew to operate illegally and at high levels of fatigue, ALPA issued recommendations to its members in the interest of safety of pilots and passengers,” it said.

Pilots, ALPA said, were advised to contact the executive committee whenever they were asked to “operate beyond what was published in their roster. “It is ultimately up to the individual to accept a flight or not.”

Screenshots of ALPA posts sent to MaltaToday show that while pilots were free to decide for themselves, the union was applying a name and shame approach to those that choose to comply with the company.

Talks underway regarding health insurance

In addition to rostering issues, the sources said talks were also underway regarding pilots’ Permanent Health Insurance, included in the collective agreement.

The insurance covers pilots against any injury that could prevent them from being able to continue flying and ensures that they continue to receive their salary in such an eventuality.

The sources said that after the agreement was signed in January, Air Malta was informed by the insurance broker that it would no longer be offering the cover, meaning that this part of the collective agreement needed to be renegotiated.

“Talks between the airline and the union recommenced in June after the broker informed the company that the cover could no longer be given,” the source said. “Then, over the course of the discussions other issues came up.”

Pilots who spoke to MaltaToday pointed out that there was reason to believe that the company had been informed about the change prior to the signing of the agreement, but did not disclose this information to the union, in order for an agreement to be reached as soon as possible.

Pilot suspension a knee-jerk reaction to public outcry

Meanwhile, the airline announced on Friday that it had suspended one of its pilots over a comment posted online some five months ago, in which the pilot in question appeared to joke about a technical fault developed by Air Malta’s newest aircraft.

The union said in a statement that the pilot’s suspension was a “knee-jerk reaction by the company’s management to a public outcry regarding a misleading media article”.

It said that the pilot in question referred to the irony in an aircraft “following an ALPA directive”, while noting that the comment had been posted in a closed pilot group.

“This was maliciously taken out of context by the person who forwarded it to an online political party portal,” the union said.

It added that the suspension was also an “attack on a representative of the pilot work force intended only to intimidate the pilot community”.

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