Anything goes...

Air Malta stands a chance of passing muster for the cut-throat competition of aviation only if it is shut down as a company, and then recreated as a new company with new policies in place

File photo
File photo

The other day I asked whether it made sense to pay €50 million as retirement schemes to Air Malta employees. The cost of these employees to the company is €15 million a year.

The government has made it clear that the future of Air Malta does not depend on it, but on the European Commission and its anti-state aid regime (what it really is, in simple terms, is an overarching EU plan to weed out inefficient airlines and replace all intra-EU flights with low-cost giants while leaving the dominant legacy airlines to handle transatlantic and long-haul flights).

What this means is that Air Malta stands a chance of passing muster for the cut-throat competition of aviation only if it is shut down as a company, and then recreated as a new company with new policies in place.

In normal circumstances, this would mean that the employees would be terminated – finita la storia!

But this is Malta and Air Malta employees are part of a long history of political patronage at a national airline that has suffered countless bad decisions.

Surely when pilots were made redundant under COVID-19 conditions, the same could have applied to other workers. But the government held on to them – it probably had no choice naturally given the state of the economy at that point, but in my view rather than going for votes, it could have devised then a way of rationalising the airline.

Air Malta employees have over the years been awarded salary structures which have been over-generous or at least did not reflect the derived demand of the company. Year by year, accumulated losses and overstaffing showed us that getting Air Malta to work right, is no mean feat. But political expediency and promises led the government to promise the workers at Air Malta that they would be transferred to government jobs – at their same salaries! – much like they did with a stupid guarantee for the pilots some years back.

No one, it seems, realised that this would not be possible. Not possible because the inflated salaries at Air Malta are incomparable with the rather average salaries in the civil service. And this mismatch opens the road to industrial trouble.

So there was no option but to have the voluntary transfer scheme turned into a redundancy package.

In the election campaign the PN should have been asking for the costs of all Labour’s promises – they did not. Perhaps they were scared of being seen to be against the aspirations of Air Malta workers.

The voluntary retirement scheme, which was agreed upon with the General Workers Union, the Union of Cabin Crew, the Airline Engineers association, and the AAOC union, will offer €40,000 to those who have served up to five years; €80,000 to those serving 5-10 years; €120,000 for 10-15 years of service; €150,000 for 15-20 years of service; €180,000 for 20-25 years; €210,000 for 25-30; and €240,000 for those of over 30 years of service.

Air Malta staff aged 50 and over are eligible for an early retirement scheme if they have served 20 years and over, to be paid two-thirds of their total take-home pay, capped at a maximum €300,000. A handsome payout if you ask me.

In a private company, such handouts would be impossible and unthought of. Air Malta is not a private company, but a Cinderella in the hands of politicians who have played with it as if it were their employment agency. And it brings to the fore the question of taxpayers’ money and whether such a lavish handout makes sense in this year of impending recession. Or whether €50 million could be spent elsewhere.

If the European Commission decides to call for the closure of the national airline (or makes it so hard to prop it up with some form of state aid), the retirement scheme would have been an exercise in throwing away €50 million. In implementing it, the government must ensure that if the same employees who left are suddenly re-employed by the airline, they should relinquish their handouts.

That of course is not going to happen. As in other voluntary schemes, and in a situation where skilled workers are difficult to come by, the chances of re-employment of individuals who have been given a handout of thousands, is very likely.

*  *  *

Year after year at this time of the year, I tend to write about Gozo. After spending a few nights in Gozo during Santa Marija, I always end up with the same emotions. But this time around, the general feeling from Gozitans themselves is overwhelming. They all talk of their Island being destroyed by the building spree. It is a deep-rooted concern, fuelled by the reality of hundreds of buildings and flats which are defacing Gozo.

There is no question that the charm of Gozo is being lost forever.

It is no longer the topic for a Sunday sermon by a Prime Minister (not that we still have them), but for immediate action and a change in policy.

I may sound pessimistic but I cannot see any policy change coming from the top. There is neither the EQ or desire to preserve Gozo. And people are so tired of speaking up.

It is a pity that we have come to this. But something needs to happen.

Quality of life has to be measured in a different way, and it cannot be that apartment blocks, and maisonettes replace the soul of the Gozitan topography.

Most of us want to continue living in our islands and not run away to Sicily where open space and nature still reign supreme. This is our home. This is our country. We all have a right to speak up.

*  *  *

I cannot understand how some Marsaxlokk residents still stand by their Parish priest. He not only suspected of having defrauded the parishioners and his Church, but went on a spending spree on fast motorbikes and also pornography, which somehow truly dents the sheen for spiritual shepherds.

I am not surprised. Men at 40 are meant to be sexually active. Pornography – ‘funded’ by the parishioners – was one of way of addressing this need, I guess. In this sense, the Marsaxlokk parish priest is truly human. Yet the Roman Catholic Church’s fixation with sexuality and celibacy requires its shepherds to be celibate, and its flock to be virgins! It is no surprise that clerics must deal with sexual urges that are not meant to be repressed, or else turn out to be sexual abusers who hide behind a layer of charisma and influence. And nobody can argue that this not a problem in global Catholicism – Malta’s own archbishop was once a chief investigator of these sexual abusers.

Why is so much faith placed in an institution, whose public good is truly questionable? Yes, the power of faith and people’s spiritual needs are understandable reasons to believe in a deity or follow a prophet. Yet, how can we not ask ourselves: is religion truly a force for good?

And this question comes to mind when the fall of charismatic people such as the Marsaxlokk parish priest, reveal the frailty of these humans who have elected themselves to mediate between believers and their God. It is a very big disappointment to all those who have put so much faith in the Church.

But again, anyone who cares to read the history of the Church should not be too surprised.  Centuries of greed, intolerance, abuse, decadence, as well as paedophilia and murder, but mostly hypocrisy has marked the history of the Roman Catholic Church and many of its rulers. The facts do not lie.