A staggering 480 flights scheduled to operate to and from Malta in the coming weeks have been cancelled as passengers grow wary of travel in the face of a COVID-19 resurgence.

The first quarter of 2022 was looking dismal for air travel, Alan Borg, the chief executive at Malta International Airport, told Times of Malta.

“The hotchpotch of uncoordinated travel restrictions across Europe is confusing passengers and destroying consumer confidence in air travel, leaving airports and airlines to bear the brunt of hasty, haphazard decisions,” Borg said. 

The holiday season is traditionally a busy time for the airport with around 246,000 available seats on flights operated on 87 routes to and from Malta.

However, despite the boost the holidays give the travel industry, Borg said the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, both in Malta and elsewhere, is casting a shadow over a well-needed recovery.

Meanwhile, Air Malta said it has had close to 2,000 cancellation refund requests this month. And the figures are mounting. A spokesperson for the airline said Air Malta received just over 2,000 new refund requests in November and close to 2,000 additional cancellation refund requests this month as of last Tuesday.

Most cancellations are coming from places which have called a lockdown or where cases are spiralling upwards

“However, this is not the full effect as some customers delay submitting refund requests,” the spokesperson said.

Since the start of the pandemic, Air Malta has received just over 300,000 ticket refund requests and refunded approximately €32 million.

Omicron-sparked slowdown

Following the surge of the Omicron variant, introduction of lockdowns and travel restrictions across Europe, the airline has seen a slowdown in new bookings.

“Air Malta saw a slowdown in new bookings and received a number of cancellations for travel over the holiday period in January.”

The spokesperson said customer confidence to travel has been “severely dented”, with new bookings for the beginning of 2022 low, with very little sign of any demand for travel in January and February. To avoid flying near-empty aircraft, Air Malta has had to consolidate and cancel some flights in the first two months of 2022.

“Such adjustments are necessary and common in the industry, which has had to deal with multiple unprecedented and ongoing travel disruptions over the last two years.”

Local travel agents and tour operators have also started to experience a slowdown in new bookings for the festive period and new year.

“New bookings have dried up and most have adopted a wait-and-see approach before booking or cancelling any trips,” said Iain Tonna, president of the travel agents’ federation.

“Most cancellations are coming from places which have called a lockdown or where cases are spiralling upwards. For example, now that Holland is in complete lockdown, those who were planning to travel for a holiday are having second thoughts,” he said.

“I believe people do not want to make rash decisions. Those who are vaccinated feel confident travelling, so they wait closer to the date to see what the situation is,” Tonna said.

Fears for Q1 2022

The federation expects the first three months of 2022 to be a struggle.  “We hope that beyond March it will be better, as the forecast looks encouraging, but we will struggle to get through the first quarter.”

His comments were echoed by Alan Arrigo, director of travel specialist Robert Arrigo & Sons Ltd, who noted the new “phenomena” of travellers booking last-minute holidays.

“Gone are the days when people would book a holiday months in advance. Because of the pandemic, everyone is booking within a three-week window,” Arrigo said.

When Britannia Services launched its Christmas packages back in October, it was fully booked in just a couple of weeks, managing director Noel Farrugia said.

“We were positive we were heading for a super Christmas, but unfortunately two Christmas markets in Austria and Germany were cancelled, meaning we had to refund over 400 people who had tours booked for the two markets,” Farrugia said.

Despite these cancellations, Farrugia said most customers are eager to travel, despite the restrictions and an increase in COVID cases.

“We follow all the regulations, and all those booking a tour with us must be vaccinated. People are eager to travel, we still have requests coming in asking for availabilities on tours for this week.”

Still, the company is hopeful that travel will pick up in 2022.

“The situation is constantly changing, but we already have requests for our Easter programme and tours. So we are staying positive.”

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