It is “probably true” to suggest that low-cost Irish airline Ryanair – and its Maltese subsidiary, Malta Air – has become the country’s unofficial national airline, its chief executive, Michael O’Leary mused.

The head of Europe’s biggest airline in terms of passenger numbers is reflecting on the challenges faced by Malta’s actual national carrier.

“If Malta was still depending on Air Malta for connections, tourism would be struggling,” O’Leary said, describing the airline as too small to be competitive.

“In the new world of European aviation, you need to be one of the big four airlines to really survive and thrive. Malta is very fortunate it has one of Europe’s big four airlines based here,” he said.

Describing Ryanair and its subsidiary as “growing very rapidly”, O’Leary reiterated the assertion he made last year that if something were to happen to Air Malta, the country “knows it can always rely on Malta Air”.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary.

In April, Air Malta’s CEO,  David Curmi told Times of Malta that struggling Air Malta will be replaced by a new national airline by the end of the year after the EU rejected the government’s request for €300 million in State aid. The finance minister, however, has said that a definitive decision has still not been made.

O’Leary is confident that the government and Air Malta’s management would find a way for the airline – which he described as “very good” – to successfully continue operating.

“The Maltese government is almost obligated to keep Air Malta going... but what the Maltese government has done very cleverly is to get Ryanair to create and grow Malta Air so, now, Malta has two airlines based here, rather than just being entirely dependent on Air Malta,” he said.

Characterising the national carrier as having been beset by “strikes and labour stoppages” in the past, O’Leary said these problems had diminished with the presence of Ryanair and its subsidiary.

Quality tourism vs numbers

While Ryanair certainly offers more choice, the airline and other low-cost carriers have also been held partly responsible for overtourism.

Last month, the Chamber of Commerce urged the authorities to prioritise quality tourism over numbers in a bid to “fix and rebuild” the country’s image.

Responding to the suggestion that the cheaper fares offered by low-cost carriers such as Ryanair could be helping to attract lower spending tourists, O’Leary said it was a challenge faced by every successful tourism destination.

“There’s no doubt that when you start offering very low-fare air travel, you do tend to get a lot more younger people, stag parties and hen parties who are always looking for somewhere new and Malta is one of the newer destinations.” he said.

“You don’t want it to be all – as it would have been here 10 years ago – ‘blue rinse brigades’ getting a charter flight, getting on a bus and their meals are all prepaid. That’s not the future. You also don’t want it to go to the other extreme and becoming just a party destination…

“I think it’s unfair to characterise that as ‘low quality’ tourism but it’s certainly noisier,” he continued, stressing it was important to encourage “different strands” of tourism, including those seeking a more cultural experience.

“What we’re trying to do... is appeal to many more middle-aged people whose children have gone back to school. They’re looking for winter sun, history, architecture, good food [and] Malta’s a great destination for that.”

Ryanair will soon reach 50 employees at its maintenance hangar at Malta International Airport and is looking to expand its operations at the site.Ryanair will soon reach 50 employees at its maintenance hangar at Malta International Airport and is looking to expand its operations at the site.

MTA support

When asked if the financial support Ryanair receives from the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA) gave it an unfair competitive advantage considering its size, O’Leary said the amount of support is “very small” and didn’t reflect the “huge investments” it has made in the country.

“If you look at it in simple terms, we base six aircraft here on the island; that’s an investment of $600 million in Malta. We’re now investing in jobs; we pay a lot of employment tax here,” he said.

Highlighting the new maintenance facility announced last year and the presence of Ryanair subsidiary, Malta Air, O’Leary said the group’s investments in the country were “many multiples the tiny amounts of money” it received from the MTA.

“We’re promoting Malta all over Europe in a way that, respectfully, Air Malta doesn’t but you can see on the ground and at the airport that we’re delivering all the growth,” he said. “Whatever money we receive from the MTA is money very well spent.”

O’Leary said the group would soon reach 50 employees at its maintenance hangar at Malta International Airport and were looking to expand their operations at the site.

“If we can get to a five-bay facility here, we’ll employ 250 engineers here each winter,” he said.

Aviation taxes

The Ryanair boss had harsh criticism for the European Commission’s proposed increased taxes on aviation, saying he thought there were better ways to reduce emissions.

Describing the company as already being “heavily taxed”, O’Leary said about around 10 per cent of its revenue was being “stolen” by the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) and that he wanted to see the taxes levied at long-haul flights in and out of Europe.

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