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Air Malta hits operational turbulence

In the last few months, Air Malta has had a problematic operational phase as it tried to maximise its fleet flying time to increase capacity and hopefully profitability. Nothing much has been said, at least in public, by the government on the national airline’s strategy to become financially viable, even if this is a focal point for EU regulators who have to deal with competition issues of airlines.

An airline with operational challenges finds it difficult to win over the confidence of its customers who put reliability, safety, and consistency in service at the very top of their priorities list when booking flights.

In the past few months, Air Malta has cancelled and rescheduled some flights because its current fleet of aircraft allowed little space for unforeseen events like unavoidable delays, urgent maintenance requirements and industrial action by the airline’s staff or other staff of companies providing ancillary services to airlines internationally.

Experienced observers of the airline industry believe that Air Malta’ recent operational problems are not just a matter of bad luck. They ask some questions that so far have not been answered satisfactorily by the government that is the major shareholder of Air Malta.

Some of these questions are: who is, in fact, taking operational decisions in Air Malta? To what extent is Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi involved in the day-to-day running of the airline? With the chairman and the other directors of Air Malta with minimal airline management experience, the executive management rather than the minister and the directors of the company should be making operational plans.

It is hardly conceivable that long-experienced airline managers would embark on a route expansion programme without having a robust operational plan in place. The evidence on the ground and in the air seems to indicate that there is no such viable operational plan.

Why did Air Malta leave it to the last moment to hire aircraft crew from a Chinese recruitment agency only a few weeks after having concluded protracted negotiations with its own pilots’ union? Is it a good tactic to lease a rather old aircraft to fill in operational gaps that should have been predicted even if Air Malta says that such aircraft are certified internationally as being safe?

Operationally dysfunctional business will almost inevitably end up being economically unviable. Air Malta is no exception. The EU competition authorities are undoubtedly watching how Air Malta is performing financially. The only strategic comment that the government and the airline leaders have made so far is that Air Malta wants to become the preferred airline of the Mediterranean. With such frequent changes in Air Malta’s strategy in the last decade, many are rightly sceptical on the soundness of this strategy.

A political administration has every right to define jointly with the board of directors the strategy of government-owned companies like Air Malta. But surely they should not meddle with operational issues. The board of directors has the onerous obligation of ensuring that the business model they adopt is sound and viable. They then should leave the professional executive management of the company to implement the strategic plan.

Ultimately Maltese taxpayers own Air Malta. The government and the board must keep people regularly informed of progress achieved. It must also reply to questions put by the media.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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