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Pilots threaten to strike

Air Malta pilots’ strike planned for July 16

Air Malta pilots, feeling “betrayed” by a “defective” restructuring plan drawn up by Ernst & Young, are threatening to ground the whole airline fleet in three weeks’ time unless their demands are met.

Their main demand is a three-year moratorium on Malta International Airport charges.

“The MIA has drained us. They charge us for everything: the car park, security, cargo, passengers and our offices,” the president of Airline Pilots Association (Alpa), Domenic Azzopardi said.

“Cutting the (airport) fees by €2 is not nearly enough... we need a moratorium of three years until we get back on our feet,” he said, in reaction to details of a draft copy of the restructuring plan that appeared on The Sunday Times yesterday.

Based on a 10-aircraft fleet, the national carrier will have to lose 511 workers including about 57 pilots, 53 cabin crew, 21 engineers and the rest from loaders and officer workers. The government will have to provide €25 million more to recapitalise Air Malta while the company must raise €51 million in bank loans or bonds. Some passenger charges are planned to increase profitability.

But Capt. Azzopardi is unimpressed.

“We are not going to save the airline by charging customers to use their Visa card or by removing discounts for children. If we place more charges on the customer, we might as well close.”

Instead, Air Malta should focus on making profit from things like cargo. “For example, agents charge customers €50 to send a one kilo parcel from Malta to the UK but Air Malta only makes 50c,” he said, adding these were suggestions the union made but did not seem to have been taken on board.

Mr Azzopardi added the airline would not be helped much by removing freebies for the Finance Minister or the Prime Minister. Asked whether the symbolic gesture was appreciated he replied: “Symbolic gestures won’t feed us.”

The pilots will stage a protest in Valletta on July 15 and Alpa plans to ground all Air Malta planes the following day.

“This is the last straw. We cannot go on like this. The work is not being done well. We have been ignored and now we are taking a stand so we will not be ignored any longer.”

Capt. Azzopardi spoke of “preferential treatment” being given to low-cost carrier Ryan Air, saying that to have a level playing field, the government must give the same exact benefits to Air Malta.

In a statement, Alpa said it was not in the interest of the company to make pilots redundant considering the money invested in their training. The union has offered solutions by coordinating the “leasing” excess pilots to other airlines who need them.

In reaction, Malta International Airport said in a statement that while being sensitive to the current situation being faced by Air Malta and its employees, the company categorically denies the claims regarding Malta International Airport's alleged responsibility for the current situation the national airline is in. Malta International Airport said it is conscious of the importance of Air Malta for the tourism industry and the economy and it looked forward to continue constructive discussions with the airline's management.

Meanwhile, the general secretary of the General Workers’ Union, Tony Zarb complained about the way the restructuring plan was made public. “We are surprised that we did not get such news from the government or the company but through The Sunday Times today,” he said.

“I cannot confirm the numbers because we had never heard the ones that were published. I would like to point out that we were previously speaking about 600 workers and now the number changed to 511. Which one is the correct number,” he asked.

Mr Zarb stood by the union’s position that the government should give an alternative job to workers who did not opt for early retirement.

The issue boiled over last week when it was revealed that employing surplus Air Malta staff in the public service could be forbidden because the EU could interpret this as a form of state aid.

The union will be meeting the company this week to discuss the breakdown of job losses in each department and how the airline arrived to such numbers.

Air Malta employees were reportedly “in a state of panic” yesterday. Insisting on anonymity, one worker said employees deserved better than to hear about a draft plan from a newspaper and although it was only in draft stages, many were taking it to be a fact.

He argued that judging by Air Malta’s workload in the past, the number of workers to be laid off was unsustainable, adding that employees were left in the dark even with regard to the work the airline was targeting for the future.

Air Malta said yesterday the report that appeared on The Sunday Times was not based on the “finalised version” sent to the European Commission. “The final report contains amendments that were not reflected in the article and do not mirror the current thinking on the way forward.”

The airline added that the 190 loaders mentioned by the newspaper actually referred to the whole ground operations division and not to the number to be laid off.

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