Air Malta is planning to keep just 26 pilots on its books starting from Tuesday and is insisting with the employment authorities that it plans to lay off, without any compensation, more than 80% of its cockpit crew, according to correspondence seen by The Shift.
As the national airline, like most of its counterparts across the globe, is almost completely grounded due to the COVID-19 crisis, it has formally given notice about the massive layoffs among its pilots, which will come into effect on Tuesday 21 April.
The airline is taking the stand that it offered the possibility of keeping all its pilots on its books, even during the crisis, only if they agreed to have their salaries reduced to around €1,200 a month. On average, pilots earn some €10,000 a month.
However, the union representing pilots ALPA flatly turned down this offer, Air Malta said.
In a letter sent to the Director of Industrial and Employment Relations (DIER) announcing the termination of 108 pilots, the airline’s Head of Human Resources James Genovese made it clear that the State-owned company did not see any possible solution except to go down the route of redundancies.
“The company is of the view that there are no ways in which to avoid redundancies or to even reduce the number of employees affected,” Genovese wrote.
Genovese pointed out to the DIER that it had selected the pilots that would be sacked based on the ‘last in first out principle’ and insisted that the company had no intention of offering a severance package, even though it was obliged to do so.
“While the relevant collective agreement requires discussion on a severance package in addition to payments due statutorily, the company does not feel that any additional payments are to be made in the circumstances,” Genovese wrote.
Air Malta was planning to axe its pilots during the first week of May but then informed the Director of Employment that the redundancies would take place on Tuesday.
Relations between Air Malta and its pilots have always been on the rocks. Air Malta pilots, who are handsomely paid when compared to the Maltese average salary, insist on being treated like other airline pilots, while the airline (under different administrations) has accused them of holding the company ransom through threats of industrial action.
Air Malta senior officials told The Shift that it was obvious that the government was using the crisis created by coronavirus as an excuse to settle long term differences.
“Pilots were always the biggest problem at Air Malta as they can easily ground an airline if they don’t get what they want. Now, since that threat is not there, at least momentarily, it is obvious that the government is taking the full opportunity to divide and rule,” the officials said.
“While the government may be bluffing in order to force ALPA into an agreement by threatening layoffs, pilots are currently not really in a position to negotiate. However, this is a very short-sighted approach by the government,” sources said.
Before becoming Prime Minister, Air Malta was one of Robert Abela’s clients and had used his legal services in negotiations with trade unions, including ALPA.
Air Malta has been financially struggling for many years, particularly due to an outdated business model, which was no match for low-cost carriers and the direct interference of politicians in the running of the airline particularly through the dishing out of jobs.
To make matters worse, last year, the government agreed to become a shareholder of a new locally registered Ryanair company, named Malta Air, that had livery identical to that of the national airline.
Only last October, then Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi had threatened pilots that, should they fail to cooperate with government efforts to reform Air Malta, investment and new opportunities would be directed towards a new government-owned airline, Malta Med Air or towards other airlines instead of Air Malta.