Last Updated on Thursday, 2 November, 2023 at 3:15 pm by Andre Camilleri
Former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has said that the scope of the new airline which will replace Air Malta should not be to make a profit but to be as strong an instrument as possible to aid the country’s economy to move forward – although the airline shouldn’t be a bottomless money pit regardless.
“I think it can be financially viable, but it has to be led on commercial and business lines,” Gonzi said in an interview with this newspaper when asked whether he feels that a national airline can ever be financially viable considering Air Malta’s well-documented financial struggles.
Air Malta is set to be dissolved after 50 years at the end of March 2024 after the European Commission rejected an attempt by the government to gain permission to inject state funds into the company.
It will be replaced by a new company which will begin to operate the day after Air Malta shuts down.
Gonzi said that in his time, Air Malta had its problems but had to work under the same European Union regulations as today. He said that his administration went to the EU and explained how crucial Air Malta is for the country being that Malta is an island cut off from the rest of Europe.
“It would be a disaster if our island and economy is depending on foreign airlines, because they only care about putting money in their pockets whereas a national airline is not interested in profits but in bringing investments and tourists to the country and in exporting. We must depart from that point,” he said.
Gonzi said that he feels that his administration had presented a very strong argument with European institutions that in Malta’s case, the treatment given must be different to that of an airline in the middle of the continent because of the country’s special circumstances.
This reasoning, he continued, always won arguments with the European Union and it helped the PN administration of the day get a state aid package which was tied to a set of reforms and changes which were to be done at the airline.
“The EU, with all its experts, agreed with us – but the Labour government did not manage to do it,” he said.
“Good or bad, the facts speak for themselves. The Labour government did not manage to persuade the European Union and European Commission that it had a reform project which would have saved Air Malta,” he added.
As from 31 March 2024, Air Malta will be replaced with a new company which will take over the mantle of being Malta’s national airline.
Gonzi commented that he hopes that this company is successful because the country needs it to be such, but added that “from where I am now and with the little information I have, I have not understood what the difference [between the old and new airline] will be.”
“Are just changing the name? What are we going to do for the new company to not fall to the same mistakes?,” he questioned.
Different governments have different responsibilities and both PL and PN governments had responsibilities and opportunities, he said.
He recalls that he got to know how Air Malta works up close when he served as Minister for Social Policy where amongst his responsibilities were to solve strikes and industrial actions which pilots, stewards and ground crew used to take.
“I remember the unions – with the GWU at the forefront – in our country’s streets protesting and stopping Air Malta from operating at the height of summer. Now, I respect the rights of workers and I have massive respect for unions, but I cannot understand how in our time the voice of the unions could be heard from 7 miles away and in the last 10 years I have to look for it and I still don’t find it,” he said.
What is certain however for Gonzi is that it is in the country’s interests to have a national airline which the government can control and use in accordance with the best interest of the country.
“The scope shouldn’t be for us to make money from it, but for it to be a strong instrument to help the economy move forward but neither should it be a well of knives which has no bottom and which you pump money into and get nothing out of,” he said.
Gonzi expressed hope that a more detailed explanation on how the company will succeed and where the taxpayer’s money will go in order for the airline to be successful will be provided in the coming weeks.