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MT 8 May 2016

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maltatoday, SUNDAY, 8 MAY 2016 15 of the financial consequences. If you look at the figures, it is clear that this airline needs a break: it needs a future. It needs someone who can take decisions that appear difficult today, but which in the near future would allow Air Malta to increase its fleet to 12 or 13 aircraft… to open new routes, to increase employment where it is really needed… and ul- timately, to have an airline which needs no assistance from anybody." What are these decisions, though? Which work practices will be phased out? One example concerns annual flight hours: Air Malta pilots currently fly an average of 600 hours a year… when the European maxi- mum is 900. Is resistance to this sort of change holding back the restruc- turing process (as evidenced by the umpteenth missed deadline)? "Like I said, they are difficult deci- sions. We have spoken to the em- ployees… we announced the MOU to the workforce before revealing it even to the press. We explained to them, with the intervention of former President George Abela – whom I felt I had to rope in, for his competence and stature – that the job of saving the airline has to be a collective effort. It is not always easy to convince the unions… though to be fair: the unions have behaved very responsibly in the time I've been minister. We experienced none of the problems you sometimes see with other European airlines. "But this is a critical moment, and there is no time to waste. Last Wednesday we sent a delegation to Rome, led by [chairperson] Ma- ria Micallef, to begin discussing the technical details [of the Alitalia ac- quisition]. At present we have a ge- neric MOU, which I shall be tabling in parliament on 25 May – because from the start I insisted the process would be transparent. We have nothing to hide: this is an area where I expect even the Opposition to do its bit. I plan to involve it more, in fact. This is not an initiative of the Labour government; this has to be a national effort…" Again, Zammit Lewis sounds up- beat and optimistic… but the prac- tical difficulties remain. Take the Opposition, for instance. He expects support on Air Malta, when 'sup- port from the Opposition' is the one thing this government has never had on any issue. Isn't his expecta- tion slightly unrealistic? And has he made any overtures to the Opposi- tion to try and secure the desired support? "I am not too keen on getting bogged down in arguments with the Opposition; let's just say that before announcing the MOU this week, I informed MP Claudio Grech, who seemed disposed to discuss it fur- ther. But to be honest, I receive mixed messages from the opposi- tion. When I read certain articles about Air Malta in the Nazzjon or Mument, I ask myself what sort of direction they have in mind. Often it seems to veer towards mediocrity. "But then, I also see signals that the Opposition is ready to behave responsibly on this issue. Personally, I believe it is the role of the opposi- tion to be part of this process; but I won't get into a pointless debate about all the mistakes of the past. I could if I wanted to: I could debate them all for hours, and I'd have a lot to say. But that's not a way forward. We need a mature debate, in which we approach sensitive issues from a common front. I don't mind that the Opposition questions things: that is its job. But it should also be respon- sible in its criticism." To return to the MOU with Alita- lia: so far we have only looked at it from the perspective of the airline it- self. What about consumers? What sort of benefits is this partial privati- sation expected to bring about? "The consumer will win for sure. Why? Because the consumer always wins when you have centralisation of procurement. I am a politician, not a technical expert, but I have delved into this issue. There are advantages in consolidation with a larger group: take Alitalia itself, for instance. It is widely known that the airline went through difficulties in the past; but since the acquisition by Etihad, things have moved forward, and Ali- talia is on its way to becoming a pre- mium airline. Etihad is known the world over as being at the forefront when it comes to work practices; it is one of the most sophisticated air- lines in the world. It invests a lot in human resources. So yes, I do expect the consumers to benefit…. from lower fares, from an improved prod- uct, from a very strong network of affiliated airlines that has a presence all over the world. The consumer definitely emerges from this situa- tion as an absolute winner..." Speaking of investment… so far there are no indications of actual figures anywhere in the MOU, and negotiations are still under way. The figure of 400 million has been cited in the press. Can he confirm that? "What I can say is this: from a his- torical point of view, when we threw only money at the problem, without effecting any real restructuring, we never got results. In 2004, Minister Austin Gatt already faced problems at Air Malta. He threw money into the airline, yes, but kept the same business model. What actually hap- pened? The money lasted six years… then, in 2010-11, Minister Tonio Fenech found himself in the same situation. 132 million were invest- ed in the airline in all. It wasn't all for nothing, I'll admit: there were improvements. But at the end of the day, it was a policy of contain- ment…" The bottom line is that invest- ment, on its own, cannot solve Air Malta's problems, if not accompa- nied by a thorough reform of work practices. "As for precise figures, I will be able to give you an answer in a few months' time… but not now." Interview Tough times lie ahead for Air Malta. But Tourism Minister EDWARD ZAMMIT LEWIS is brimming with confidence that the national airline can achieve the promised turnaround despite countless delays decisions' on Air Malta

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