by Jesmond Saliba
Air Malta has, inevitably, been caught up in the Covid-19 turbulence. Every airline around the world has been crippled by stringent passenger travel bans resulting in grounded fleets, laid-off staff, and flight refund demands.
Malta’s flag carrier has been flying in low visibility for a few good years and successive administrations, ministers and management teams introduced a whole raft of measures to pilot the company back into recovery. Different solutions have been floated: from pursuing acquisition by another carrier to co-ownership by a national consortium with direct interest in the carrier.
The latest turnaround plan, however, was caught mid-flight by the coronavirus pandemic.
Beyond its unquestionable value to the Maltese tourism industry, Air Malta is an essential plank in the country’s economic strategy. Malta’s high population density, its limited natural resources and, above all, its insularity makes it disproportionately reliant on sea and air connections than other countries to power a burgeoning economy.
Security of the airline and routes is fundamental not only for industry and manufacturing, but for the service sector as well. Particularly so as we move collectively to become an international centre of trade with a growing non-Maltese share of the workforce.
But the economic relevance of Air Malta is only half the story. The brand possesses deep meaning in the local context, and it has steadily developed into a focal national institution. A part of the population still remembers the company being set up in the early 1970s taking the country into a whole new era, and since then it has always flown the Malta’s colours with pride.
The carrier is one of the few modern embodiments of national identity and the effects of its possible dissolution, particularly at a low time like this, must not be underrated. It would represent a punch in the gut to the country’s morale.
This is a delicate time for decision-makers who understand the implications better than anyone else. While action should not be simply steered by public emotion, leaders must not take the easy way out, either.
It would be hugely ironic if an airline that, for so many years, could not escape strict state aid rules to find its rescue, would end up with its wings clipped right when the EU has announced the relaxation of the same legislation.
by Jesmond Saliba