This last week, the government launched Malta’s tourism strategy. Dayna Camilleri Clarke met with Alan Borg, CEO of Malta International Airport to discuss how MIA has navigated through the pandemic so far, and what’s to come.
How did Covid-19 impact you as an entity?
The biggest impact was on our passenger numbers, which declined by a staggering 76.1% in 2020 compared to 2019. Last year’s traffic result, in fact, brought a decade of passenger traffic growth at Malta International Airport to an abrupt end. Consequently, this led to a drop of €68m in the revenue generated by the company in 2020 compared to 2019. The resilience built by the company over the past years, together with a fair number of sacrifices and timely mitigation measures, has so far enabled us to weather this storm.
What measures did you undertake to adapt to the changes, both within your teams and physically?
The measures we have taken since the outbreak of the pandemic can be hived under three categories, namely measures related to our guests’ airport experience, internal measures related to the team and financial and cost-cutting measures.
The guest experience
Our aim here is to maintain a safe yet welcoming airport environment which puts our guests at ease. While we have sought to make the shift to a contactless experience through the use of new technology and the installation of signage promoting social distancing at practically every step of the journey, we also deemed it important to retain a human touch. For this reason, we put together the Airport Care Team, which is composed of 16 specially trained front-liners whose day-to-day tasks range from more logistical aspects such as ensuring that the 120 hand sanitising stations installed across the terminal are replenished, to more delicate tasks such as providing reassurance to anxious guests.
Through the installation of nine thermal cameras at main entry points, which are monitored by health professionals, every passenger departing from or arriving in Malta is being screened. Additionally, as per the most recent health and safety measures, all passengers arriving in Malta are required to present a negative result of a Covid-19 test taken not more than 72 hours prior to arrival. Passengers who fail to show this document are being subject to a swab test carried out by health professionals stationed at MIA and may also be asked to observe a quarantine period.
It was extremely encouraging for us to receive the Best Airport in Europe award in our airport size category last month, based on the collection of feedback from passengers who flew through our airport in 2020. It is worth noting, especially given the current context, that we received particularly high scores from our guests for cleanliness, staff courtesy and safety and security.
Internally, the pandemic fast-tracked our efforts to introduce a work-from-home (WFH) option for employees whose duties can be carried out remotely. The introduction of WFH did not only allow us to safeguard our employees’ wellbeing and ensure business continuity, but also afforded members of the team, who had to take on additional Covid-induced responsibilities in their private lives and enhanced flexibility to strike a good work-life balance. 2020 saw several team members learn new skills required to respond to emerging needs and expectations. Just to give an example, our fire-fighting team has been trained to fumigate and sterilise potentially contaminated areas within the terminal, allowing us to respond more efficiently if positive cases are identified on the airport campus than if we were to rely on external sources.
To keep morale high and communication flowing, we launched an employee recognition platform, which allows both vertical and horizontal recognition, as well as a series of virtual Q&A sessions, during which employee concerns and questions are answered by myself and other members of the management team.
Our internal efforts too were recognised by Airports Council International during the 16th edition of ACI Europe’s Best Airport awards, when we received the HR Excellence award based on an assessment of our initiatives conducted by a panel of HR industry professionals.
Financial and cost-cutting measures
The company implemented its cost-cutting and liquidity preservation programme in April 2020 to soften the blow of the pandemic and ensure its financial sustainability and has, since then, revised this programme as necessary. The mitigation measures taken included, among others, the suspension of projects deemed to be non-essential or non-strategic and tiered salary reductions across the board. Here, I would like to thank the team for understanding that everybody’s input was needed in order for the company to be able to weather this storm.
How are you managing now? What’s your views on this year and the digital vaccine certificate?
This crisis is not over, and we remain vigilant to how the situation is unfolding and of challenges such as the introduction of haphazard travel restrictions in some of our source markets and low consumer confidence in the travel industry. Our passenger numbers for the months of January and February dropped by 91% and 93.5% respectively compared to last year, and a look at passenger traffic through European airports for January and February shows a drop of 82% compared to the same two months in 2020.
We are confident, however, that the second half of the year will be significantly better for MIA. The progress Malta has made in immunising its population – often leading the way compared to other European counterparts – coupled with the potential of our country as a Mediterranean destination, make me quite optimistic that the much-awaited first signs of recovery for our industry will truly be experienced this summer.
Here, I would also like to welcome the Tourism Recovery Plan announced by the Minister for Tourism especially regarding the focus on attracting traffic from European countries on the basis of their having achieved a satisfactory rate of vaccination by June; discussions with the UK with a view to reach a bilateral health agreement and the plan for vaccinated tourists to be able to visit free of restrictions by presenting a digital “green passport”, with non-vaccinated tourists still being able to submit a negative Covid-19 test.
We must not forget that although there is hope for a meaningful summer operation in Malta, this is also highly dependent on the situation in other European countries and the complete or partial removal of the current restrictions on air travel. The introduction of a uniform Digital Green Certificate system would certainly be a game-changer in this regard and I cannot stress enough the importance of this system being considering and approved at EU level in time for summer.
On our part, we have been working closely with the local Health Authority and the Malta Tourism Authority on an electronic application which would allow passengers travelling to Malta to upload the necessary documents – their Passenger Locator Form, Health Declaration Form and Covid-19 test result or vaccine certificate – in order for these to be processed before their arrival in Malta.
The benefits of this app are two-fold – on the one hand, it will allow the health authorities to have instant access to important information about passengers entering Malta, which information is currently being processed and stored manually, and, on the other hand, it will allow passengers to enjoy a faster and more seamless experience through our airport.
How did Brexit affect you?
The main impact of Brexit so far has been that travellers from the UK are being subject to more elaborate screening processes and controls. With an aim for screening capacity to be increased, MIA has plans in place which provide for the doubling of the footprint of the Customs screening area. Additionally, Malta Customs will be investing in two new X-ray machines to replace the current infrastructure.
Do you have any plans for any new services?
Our plans for the medium-term are to continue investing strategically in projects within our retail and property portfolio which would yield an immediate return. In November 2020, we completed our multi-storey car park with an investment of €20m and within the next months we shall be mounting a 750 kWp photovoltaic system on the roof of this building, which would allow us to generate more clean energy.
In the last quarter of 2020, we also concluded the first phase of our Cargo Village project, which entailed the development of a car park accommodating 315 vehicles and the extension of a warehousing facility. We are now onto phase two of the project and have recently issued a call for tenders for civil works as part of the construction of a new warehousing area.
This year, we also plan to relocate the fuel station, which is currently situated near SkyParks Business Centre, to start paving the way for the SkyParks 2 project and the business hotel. 2020 saw us finalise the design of this multi-purpose building and identify the commercial areas within it, and earlier this year we shortlisted a suitable operator for the hotel. Works are now underway on aligning the final hotel design to that of the business centre and establish detailed costs to assess the feasibility of this project.
We are also currently evaluating bids received in response to a call for tenders issued recently in relation to the development of a new aircraft parking area, Apron X, which will significantly enhance our aircraft parking capacity by accommodating either seven narrow-body aircraft or three wide-body aircraft. While we are currently experiencing a lull in air traffic, we are confident that the demand for air travel will rebound and we will once again see our airport bustle with activity.