Pilots' dispute was over threats and intimidation, union tells court

Pilots' union insists industrial action was a result of intimidation by flight operations chief • Company says Alitalia threatened to cancel its code-sharing agreement with Air Malta in wake of 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
2016: Air Malta pilots file a court case contesting a prohibitory injunction by national airline Air Malta against their right to take industrial action

A decision by ALPA, the pilots’ union, to order industrial action earlier this week was taken in light of “threats and intimidation” against union members by the airline’s flight operations chief, union members said in court on Friday.

The court heard submissions by both Air Malta and ALPA this morning in a case regarding a warrant of prohibitory injunction filed by the company against its pilots over a set of directives issued by the union.

The industrial action saw pilots reporting for work half an hour late causing disruption to the airline’s schedule.

The directives are believed to have been ordered after demands by the union for pilots to be guaranteed two-thirds of their salary until the age of retirement in the eventuality that Air Malta fails, were turned down.

The move appeared to have been instigated by the launch of Ryanair subsidiary Malta Air, which the government has retained a golden share in.

After the directives were issued, Air Malta had filed an application requesting the court to stop ALPA and its members from taking any further action which it described as “illegal” and “prejudicial to the company and its rights”.

READ MORE: Pilots’ industrial action: all Air Malta planes to fly 30 minutes late

Alitalia re-evaluating relationship with Air Malta over directives

Air Malta lawyer Ron Galea Cavallazzi explained to the court the reason the company had filed the injunction, and the financial impact the industrial action was going to have on the airline.

He asked that the court hear witnesses testify about the impact caused by the industrial action as well as the potential consequences of it continuing and even escalating.

Air Malta’s Chief Commercial Officer Paul Sies explained that 18 flights were impacted by the delays. 68 people had to be rerouted due to missed connections at a cost of €68,000, he said. Several others had cancelled their flights. “The moment bad news is in the newspapers about industrial actions, people choose not to fly Air Malta.”

He said the financial impact of the action amounted to some €160,000 every day.

Asked how long the company could be expected to survive if the directives escalated, Sies said that it wouldn’t be too long before the there was a problem

“We have also had communication with a commercial partner which said it will re-evaluate its relationship with us, if the industrial action continued.”

Sies later clarified that the commercial partner was Alitalia, when pressed by ALPA lawyer Andre Portelli.

Directives due to ‘threats and intimation’

Taking the witness stand Matthew Degiorgio, the union’s vice president insisted that the industrial action was called in the interest of both the company and the union because it was clear that talks between the two parties could not proceed with the participation of the Emvic Debono, the airline’s Chief Flight Operations Officer.

“As long as this person is involved, we can never ever reach an agreement,” Degiorgio insisted. “The guarantees mentioned are still drafts. The spin it is being given is not true… it was never discussed.”

Degiorgio who was promoted to captain last year said he had been suspended on half pay by Debono, who wanted to intimidate him at the start of negotiations.

Three months later, he said, another pilot was taken before a board of discipline, without any evidence of wrongdoing.

He said that industrial action had been taken in good faith. “When we delayed flights by 30 minutes, we knew that the company did this anyway. There were planes stuck abroad without slots or because of bad weather and which could have been delayed by an hour and half or two hours.”

Union rushed to industrial action

Cross-examined by Galea Cavallazzi, Air Malta’s lawyer, the pilot said industrial action was threatened three times due to disciplinary measures against pilots but action was not always taken.

Galea Cavallazzi accused the union of rushing to industrial action instead of allowing the airline’s disciplinary process to take its course.

“Industrial action was taken only because Emvic was being sent as a portavoce and would derail talks,” replied the witness, adding that there was disagreement on a clause about disputes, disagreements and differences of opinion.

“I don’t know how there can be good faith when you send back paragraphs that are different to those agreed upon.” 

Debono denies altering meeting minutes

Debono testified about the correspondence and meetings with ALPA during which the industrial action was discussed.

He said that while ALPA had reached an agreement with the management, it had said that action would persist unless the government changed its position. That there was any agreement was however refuted by the union’s lawyer.

In its communication with the airline, the union had said that “the final agreement” was “making its way to the ministry” and that if the union’s demands weren’t met by the 30 June, members would be advised to prepare for industrial action.

Portelli also pointed out to the witness that his resignation had been requested in view of “threats and intimidation” towards two union executive members. Debono said it had, but that he had refused the request.

Asked directly by the court why the industrial action had been instituted, Debono said “according to them there were some threats”.

Portelli then asked Debono how he came to be in possession of an unspecified leaked document. “From a pilot,” he replied.

The lawyer went on to ask him whether he agreed that the document was not addressed to the company and that it wasn’t a warning of industrial action. The court stopped the lawyer at this point, saying it would decide that issue itself.

The document - the minutes from a meeting with track changes - stated that industrial action “could commence”.

ALPA had told Air Malta’s management: “We want his resignation and we don’t want him present in negotiations”, read the document, with the union’s lawyer adding that after the meeting, Debono had sent a draft of the minutes which didn’t reflect what had been discussed during the meeting.

This was denied by Debono. 

The court will decide whether to uphold the airline's warrant at a later date. 

READ MORE: Pilots’ 30-minute delay cost Air Malta €250,000