Pilots blame ground handling, staffing issues for Air Malta delays

Pilots’ union ALPA takes umbrage at report showing aircraft captain delayed refuelling after flower shopping inside Schiphol terminal

Air Malta pilots from the ALPA union in a recent action
Air Malta pilots from the ALPA union in a recent action

The union of pilots ALPA has claimed it carried out its own “internal inquiry” into allegations that an Air Malta pilot delayed a flight to Malta from Amsterdam because he was shopping in the terminal, published in MaltaToday on Wednesday morning.

The pilot was expected to arrive in Malta in time to fly passengers out of Malta International Airport to Palermo by 10pm, after the originally scheduled 5:30am flight was delayed by 16 hours due to – the airline claims – various pilots reporting in sick and a grounded aircraft that was struck by lightning.

“It is a complete smokescreen intended to cover management shortcomings,” the ALPA executive committee said in a statement, referring to MaltaToday’s report.

‘Tulips from Amsterdam’ delay Air Malta flight instructed to take stranded Palermo passengers

“The [Palermo] flight was retimed with a 17-hour delay by the company so that crew operating from Amsterdam would then head on to operate to Palermo as well. Ground handling support in Amsterdam did not manage to get cleaning services onboard on time, thus extending the delay in Amsterdam.”

MaltaToday reported that after the 5:30am flight to Palermo (KM662) was delayed, Air Malta resolved to have its flight to Amsterdam effect a quick turnaround at Schiphol airport, and fly back to Malta to take passengers to Palermo at 10pm.

ALPA today said the captain scheduled to operate to Palermo was transferred to operate Catania instead, as the originally scheduled captain on Catania did not have the minimum legal rest from his previous flight, requiring him to step down from duty. “Air Malta management routinely delays flights so that crew can avail themselves of their minimum legal rest periods,” ALPA said.

However, Air Malta’s plan to have the Amsterdam flight take the Palermo passengers at 10pm was thwarted by several delays – MaltaToday has reported – among them allegations that crew ignored company instructions. 

While the Air Malta flight to Amsterdam was scheduled to leave Malta at 12:40pm CET on Monday, the departure had to be pushed to 2pm at the start of the standby captain’s working schedule.

After a 30-minute delay due to late crew boarding, the flight left for Amsterdam. Soon after departing at 2:40pm, the flight was informed to speed up to its destination and effect a quick turnaround, that is, prepare for an earlier return from Schiphol airport back to Malta, so that it could take the stranded passengers to Palermo.

The source who spoke to MaltaToday said the airline was hoping the plane could be back in air within 45 minutes of landing in Amsterdam. Yet although landing in Amsterdam at 5:36pm (CET), at 6:45pm the airplane had still not made its turnaround and was still on ground.

MaltaToday was told that the plane had not started refuelling upon landing, and that Air Malta officials were informed the pilot had gone out to purchase flowers from inside the airport terminal before any refuelling could take place. The action resulted in a longer turnaround, and the plane only left Schiphol at 7:50pm.

ALPA today claimed that ground handling support in Amsterdam “did not manage to get cleaning services onboard on time, thus extending the delay in Amsterdam.”

Once the plane arrived in Malta at 9:54pm, the pilot was unable to fly the next plane to Palermo of because that would breach his flight hours limit, forcing Air Malta to appoint new crew to fly to Palermo and pushing the departure to 12:30am.

Pilots fly 75 hours of flying duty per month, as allowed by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. 

ALPA, which has been on the warpath with Air Malta over disagreements on its collective agreement, today blamed Air Malta’s mismanagement as the cause of passenger inconvenience and heavy financial losses.

“Our members are currently working at their legal limits and have been prevented from availing themselves of last year’s vacation leave entitlement, despite the Union’s various complaints in this respect. This has been a major contributor to a spike in fatigue experienced and reported by our members.”

Fatigue is treated seriously in the aviation industry because it is a known causal factor in accidents as a result of sleep loss or workload that can impair alertness. “Management incompetence is leading to a higher incidence of fatigue among Air Malta crew,” ALPA said in its statement.

It also accused Air Malta of not having recruited enough pilots, even though the company is training new first officers and also considering a new recruitment drive.

“The shameful tactics being employed by the company in tarnishing its own pilots with frivolous claims will not affect the pilot community from continuing to carry out their duties diligently and safely as ever,” ALPA said.

Air Malta reaction

The national airline reacted to the union statement without denying that Air Malta pilot had been busy purchasing flowers from an Amsterdam airport terminal when his flight should have been making a quick return to Malta to take stranded passengers to Palermo.

“The case mentioned was about a delay on an Amsterdam flight, operated by this pilot, that had a further ripple effect on Monday’s delayed Palermo flight.

“The alleged behaviours of some members of the pilot community are unacceptable. This weekend 13 pilots reported sick and this has constrained operations. These unprecedented sick leave figures are clearly not in line with industry norms. The airline is disappointed that a disproportionate amount of management time is being dedicated to addressing unreasonable industrial disputes.”

Air Malta said it is still willing to sign a proposed agreement sent to it by ALPA on the 29 June 2019. “The reality is that ALPA are still insisting on a Government guarantee for a €700,000 early retirement payment per pilot.”

Collective agreement dispute

Air Malta and its pilot members at the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) to delay the airline’s flights have been on frayed relations since the union took industrial action after the government failed to offer guarantees to retain an early retirement scheme that pays them €700,000 at retirement at age 55, should the airline fail. 

Ever since the signing of the collective agreement early last year, Air Malta has been in long and tough discussions with ALPA over interpretations of this agreement and other issues. 

The government has long warned that it would pass the handling of Air Malta to another government company, Malta MedAir, should pilots take debilitating action against the airline. “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.” 

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.