The national airline saga drags on much to the distress of many, especially those who in some way depend on Air Malta’s continued existence as a viable business entity. Hopes were raised some months ago when the government, which is the majority shareholder, announced it had entered into negotiations with Alitalia to assess the possibility of the Italian airline taking a strategic interest in the Maltese air carrier.

After several months of secretive discussions, it seems that negotiations are on the rocks. There are unofficial indications that the government may pull the plug on the Alitalia-Air Malta deal.

Both the Prime Minister and the minister responsible for Air Malta have been very cryptic in communicating what is likely to happen next in this sad saga. The time has come to pull the national airline out of the limbo it has been relegated to in the past several months.

The restructuring of Air Malta was never going to be an easy task. Cost-cutting measures, including the reduction of a number of employees from the airline’s payroll, seem to have still left the company in a vulnerable position with an uncertain future. With the liberalisation of the air transport market, low-cost airlines carved away many of the national airline’s profitable niches, leaving it with a business model that no longer guarantees the carrier’s survival without State aid, whether directly or indirectly.

One element that both the government and the Opposition seem to agree on is that the continued existence of the national airline is essential for the country’s economy, especially in the sector of tourism and other service industries. There also seems to be an agreement that Air Malta needs a strategic partner to give it the commercial clout it needs to compete with other carriers serving the same routes.

Many also argue that the government should continue to have a majority interest in the airline to ensure that its mission to serve the Maltese economy will not be diluted as it merely becomes a feeder for a much bigger airline.

Very little has been said so far about why the negotiations with Alitalia have stalled. What is certain is that the Italian airline itself is in no good financial shape and, on its own, is unlikely to contribute much to revive Air Malta’s fortune.

The business model that will see Air Malta surviving and thriving in the future needs to be worked out with the help of experts in the field. But equally important is the government’s political will to act in a timely fashion without giving any importance to tactical electoral considerations. The general election is not that far away but further procrastination on deciding on the future of the national airline is certainly not in the interest of the company, its workers and even the country.

Just as worrying is the silence on the date of the next annual general meeting. If Air Malta is in the process of changing the end of its financial year, it would be wise to say so and also explain why this is being done.

Confidentiality when negotiations are ongoing are, of course, an important element for a successful outcome. But equally important is the need to keep people informed, especially Air Malta’s stakeholders, on the stage the talks with Alitalia have reached.

If there is need for a new start to negotiations with another party, then the government should make its plans known without further delay.

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