Ahead of aviation newcomer Universal Air’s maiden flight on March 26 this year, the Malta-based company’s CEO, Simon Cook spoke with James Cummings to discuss the company’s change of direction. 

In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake to hit Turkey last year, one delivery of aid flown in by Malta-based airline Universal Air had special significance.

“The aunt and uncle of one of our pilots had been affected by the earthquake, and that pilot flew the aircraft with all the aid that Malta had donated into Turkey,” said the company’s CEO Simon Cook.

“It brought it home that we weren’t just flying blankets and supplies... It was quite emotional for that pilot and all his family were so proud of him,” he said.

The smaller planes flown by Universal Air proved invaluable in the aftermath of the quake that caused extensive damage to Turkey, including its airport infrastructure.

“The aircraft were brilliant because they were able to go into really small airfields that hadn’t been affected [by the earthquake] which larger cargo aircraft couldn’t.”

At the time, Universal Air was operating as a charter airline, offering cargo runs, expeditionary services and chartered flights out of Malta. But now it has its sights set on the commercial passenger market and thinks it will be able to offer something new.

'Premium economy service with low-cost prices'

According to Cook, the company is setting out to offer a “premium economy service with low-cost prices” – a middle ground between budget airlines and more expensive operators.

“We want to fill that gap between low-cost carriers, which are ‘there and back with no frills’, and the more expensive legacy carriers,” he said, pointing to the airline’s decision to offer a 15 kg checked baggage as standard for all tickets as one example.

“If we can fill that gap, we will be able to provide a unique capability both for business travel but also holidays. We want to make sure that we’re competitive with the low-cost carriers but giving a better service than what they’re offering.”

The airline will soon operate up to three flights a week to Athens, Corfu, Ibiza, Munich, Palermo and Pécs (Hungary), with more destinations planned for later this year. A one-way ticket to Ibiza will start at around €80.

And while Cook acknowledges competition is “pretty high”, with Malta also a base for rival airlines Ryanair and its subsidiary, Malta Air, he is confident the airline’s fleet of newly upgraded Dash 8-400 turboprop [jet engine-propellor hybrid] planes will give them an edge.

“We’ve got unique aircraft; there are very few of these operating across Europe... they’re capable and really fuel efficient,” he said, adding the planes’ 78-seat capacity means Universal Air can offer flights to smaller, less-serviced regional airports while still making a profit.

Turboprop planes 

But how do turboprop planes like theirs match up against the speed of jet-powered offerings such as Boeing’s 737, which have been the mainstay of budget airlines across Europe?

“It’s a smaller aircraft so it loads quicker. It also doesn’t fly as high so the time to climb up to cruising altitude is shorter and they still cruise at around 320 knots [almost 600 km/h], so customers won’t see a massive difference between flying with us and on a Boeing or Airbus.

“Once we get over the two and a half hours mark, there may be a 15 to 20-minute delay but most of our routes are around two hours,” he said.

From cargo to passengers

According to Cook, Universal Air’s decision to move into commercial passenger aviation was prompted by a change in senior management in 2021 and the company upgrading its fleet, rather than because of any problems with its previous operations.

“The old stuff was great; it was working and there’s a lot of work for that. But the aircraft were getting old,” he said, adding the company would retain its ability to charter flights for cargo and expeditionary work if needed.

“We needed to upgrade, so the choice was whether to upgrade what we were doing or take the opportunity to change how we wanted to go forward – and there are a lot of opportunities in the Mediterranean for travel.”

Cook believes that by targeting less well-connected airports, Universal Air will be able to carve a niche for itself in today’s crowded aviation market, pointing to its decision to fly to Pécs, in southern Hungary as one example.

“There are over a million people within a 45-minute drive from the airport but there’s no scheduled service,” he said. “With small aircraft we’re able to go in and accept hitting low numbers to connect somewhere that has not had a scheduled service since around 2018.”

Cook said the company had expanded considerably recently, with its staff doubling since April. And while it recruits from across the world, the large majority of its crew were Maltese.

However, he noted the company’s crew included nine native speakers for its six destinations.

And while Universal Air seems keen to show it is offering something new, their debut comes just days ahead of that of KM Malta Airlines which will replace Air Malta at the end of the month.

What does Cook think of the new national airline?

“It’s great for a country to have a national carrier and we are a proud Maltese airline as well... Hopefully, we can support each other and, hopefully, KM [Malta Airlines] will grow to be a great flag for Malta.”

To learn more about Universal Air, visit flyuniversalair.com.

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