Updated | Pilots threaten strike over early retirement guarantee in case of Air Malta failure

Pilots threaten strike, government warns it will run Air Malta with another company

2016: Air Malta pilots file a court case contesting a prohibitory injunction by national airline Air Malta against their right to take industrial action
2016: Air Malta pilots file a court case contesting a prohibitory injunction by national airline Air Malta against their right to take industrial action

Updated at 10:30am with Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi's reaction

The Airline Pilots Association has voted in favour of industrial action, threatening a full-blown strike to leave Air Malta planes grounded, unless the government accedes to their demands.

ALPA is requesting a guarantee on an early retirement scheme which sees them receiving close to €700,000 at the age of 55.

The pilots are requesting that the government guarantees their early retirement scheme, even if Air Malta should fail as a company – a move seemingly taken after the launch of Ryanair’s subsidiary airline Malta Air.

However, the government is unable to uphold this request since it would breach European Union rules against state aid.

Dominic Azzopardi
Dominic Azzopardi

ALPA representative Dominic Azzopardi was unavailable for comment yesterday.

A spokesperson for the tourism ministry told MaltaToday that Air Malta closing down was not on the cards. “It’s not remotely in the government’s vision... but the pilots’ demand would go contrary to state aid regulations.”

Meanwhile the ministry also warned ALPA pilots against taking rash industrial action.

“Unless the pilots change their behaviour, the handling of Air Malta’s growth operation will not be undertaken through the core airline, but entrusted instead to Malta MedAir,” the government-owned company which owns airline slots used by Air Malta, as well as a share in the Malta Air airline that is run by Irish low fares giant Ryanair.

In 2018, a collective agreement between the pilots association and government was signed. Photo shows tourism minister Konrad Mizzi (right)
In 2018, a collective agreement between the pilots association and government was signed. Photo shows tourism minister Konrad Mizzi (right)

“Air Malta has tried everything possible to reach agreement with the airline pilots,” the spokesperson said. “Following concessions given during the drawing up of their collective agreement – and the willingness to go beyond that to support working conditions and ensure flexibility in operations – the pilots have now requested, through ALPA, that the government guarantees their early retirement scheme in the case Air Malta should cease to exist.”

This was something the government could not do due to state aid rules. “The only resolution to such an issue has to come from within Air Malta itself. In this regard, the government cannot intervene... it’s a matter that needs to be decided upon with the company.”

The spokesperson, however, emphasised that should the pilots threaten Air Malta’s operations, the responsibility to implement the airline’s growth plans would be shifted to Malta MedAir.

“If the pilots threaten the operation of Air Malta at this crucial moment of the year and unless pilots change their behaviour, the operation of growth of the airline will not be undertaken through the core airline but through Malta MedAir – a company wholly owned by the Maltese government which was set up in January 2018.”

Such a decision would be taken with a view towards mitigating the risk to Air Malta caused by the pilots’ actions, the spokesperson underscored.

“Air Malta will grow and the government is willing to make the case with the European Commission that it could invest more in it. The purchasing of new aircraft will entail an investment of hundreds of millions.”

ALPA only recently reached an agreement with Air Malta to improve its pay packages, with captains earning up to €150,000 a year, and first officers paid €100,000 a year.

The collective agreement signed in January 2018 also provided guaranteed earnings for pilots, based on their best salary from the previous four years, plus additional mark-up. Pilots fly 75 hours of flying duty per month, as allowed by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.

Air Malta and ALPA’s choppy relationship

This latest development comes after other disagreements last year between the national carrier and the pilots’ association.

When in April 2018 Air Malta saw the arrival of a new leased aircraft (9H-AES) ALPA decided to advise its pilots not to fly the new planes as they would not have the option to erase conversations recorded by the cockpit voice recorder.

This situation persisted until Air Malta installed equipment that allowed pilots to erase their conversations post flight.

In May 2018, ALPA recommended to its members to refuse any operational changes to their roster needed by the company due to unforeseen operational schedule changes.

These restrictive practices cost the company significant financial losses. ALPA was insisting on Air Malta’s management to hire more pilots, but at the same time they were putting pressure on the airline to release pilots on unpaid leave or reduced hours.

Air Malta’s management recruited 20 more pilots during the same financial year to allow for improved rosters over and above the legal requirements.

However, interpretation of the new collective agreement led to more disputes, with ALPA increasing its pressure on its members not to cooperate with Air Malta.

In October 2018, ALPA issued a notice of industrial action calling for all trainers not to fly with Qatar Airways cadets that were currently being trained by Air Malta.

An injunction was filed by Air Malta in court, with the presiding judge requesting both parties to resolve their issues through arbitration

The ruling of the arbitration undertaken by a reputed legal representative was, however, not accepted by ALPA, which sought to resolve the issue by demanding additional payments to those suggested by the arbitration’s decision.

Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi took to Twitter in light of this and said that while the government is committed to invest in Air Malta's growth and new fleet, it wouldn't be allowing any interest groups to undermine the national interest.