Tough talk by the minister of bluntness

Caruana’s Air Malta revolution appears to be the only way forward for a legacy airline which the country cannot do without, especially if we are to continue serving Malta’s tourism and cargo demands over the next few years

When finance minister Clyde Caruana presented all that ‘bad news’ and pretty much everything we already knew about Air Malta, we were more surprised with his frankness and his dispassionate dissection of the national airline, than with the data that confirmed our worst fears.  

Technocrat Caruana, who will stand on the 2nd and 8th districts as a Labour candidate after being co-opted to parliament, sounded more like a financial consultant informing government of the present woes of an ailing company, than some electorally-minded minister gatekeeping the bad news from the Abela administration.  

A former chief of staff to Abela, Caruana spoke of all the f***-ups that had taken place in the preceding years, and had no qualms about pointing his fingers at former Labour ministers (without mentioning their names).  

He boastfully made it known that this was his plan and that he was going to implement it no matter what. He also qualified that failure to do so would mean the end of Air Malta.  

His blunt approach was applauded by many inside the diverse newsrooms who have watched and carried stories about the Air Malta crisis over the last 20 years. Caruana is of course in pole position to make all the necessary changes, which primarily includes halving the workforce to just over 400 from 800, and in changing work practices.  

The job of reducing pilot numbers was carried out before, at the height of the COVID crisis, yet he had no words of praise for his former colleagues. On the contrary, he castigated the political class for treating Air Malta as a milking cow for their political needs.  

Caruana is of course a determined politician, and he is advantaged in his role as the great reformer of Air Malta by the simple fact that he never had to fight to seek election. He doesn’t appear to have problems facing angry constituents who beg for jobs or to retain jobs at Air Malta, it seems.  

Caruana may have been co-opted to the House, but he displays a political zeal that is embraced and rejected by many in equal measure. He is at the centre of all the pressure from the European Commission on how much state aid can be forked out by the Abela government for the national airline.  

His arguments for radical downsizing are bolstered by the current economic crisis that looms over the aviation industry and Malta. His presentation, aided by Air Malta’s CEO David Curmi, made great sense, showing a loss of €300 million euros over 16 years; but his brazen analysis of political decisions and his comments about his colleagues ruffled many feathers.  

Mile End, home to Labour’s insiders, were shocked by his frankness, and Labour’s parliamentary group was surprised by the timing and tone at the press conference – just months before a general election.  

Still, Caruana’s Air Malta revolution appears to be the only way forward for a legacy airline which the country cannot do without, especially if we are to continue serving Malta’s tourism and cargo demands over the next few years.  

And there are of course many reasons that has led to this State of affairs. First and foremost, the revenues never matched the costs to operate the airliners, and the staff complement was always too high. And the disregard for the writing on the wall and the political inertia in saying “enough is enough” had become a running joke.  

When the whole airline industry was facing a crisis, decisions were taken (for example expanding the number of planes and finding new destinations) that simply made bad business sense because Air Malta’s economies of scale could never match those of its mighty competitors.  

Under many political administrations, Air Malta was run by a plethora of politically-appointed CEOs, some foreign, mostly Maltese, each with a different perspective on the way forward. No can say that they did not attempt to put things right at Air Malta.  

Everyone seems to have a different medicine for the malaise. Yet to be fair to everybody, apart from the unacceptable work practices and loss-making units inside Air Malta, the advent of low cost was the death knell.  

Austin Gatt, a former PN minister, was consistent in his opposition to low-cost and argued that it would mean the end of Air Malta. In 2006, he used his opening speech at the Amitex fair to unleash a scathing attack on low-cost airlines that were asking for subsidies to fly to Malta, insisting that the government was not sheltering Air Malta with state protection.  

To add insult to injury, while the European Commission is obliged to control how much the Maltese government can fork out to save its national airline, it allows the use of subsidised landing charges for low-cost giants like Ryanair (that is, paid out of the budget of the Malta Tourism Authoirty), to fly so-called underserved routes from second-rate European cities at cut-price fares.  

The competition, and the scale of operation, makes their prices unable to match for Air Malta. Now there is no doubt that low-cost carriers have brought Malta more and more tourists from diverse destinations, but it has not come without a price.  

We pay dearly for airlines such as Ryanair to keep their routes profitable; Ryanair on its part works within very sustainable and rigorous costs and protocols. Air Malta does not.  

It has to be seen if Clyde Caruana will succeed in his target to get Air Malta into the skies as a proud and successful legacy airline. If he does succeed, it will be a feather in his cap.  

Equally, if he triumphs in garnering electoral votes on the back of this bold reform, it would also mean that his no-nonsense approach to Air Malta did indeed work and that the electorate is ready to embrace his brand of medicine.  

It would not be the first time this has happened in Maltese politics. But if he does fail, history will come to back haunt us, telling us once again that some problems just can never be solved.