Updated at 5.30pm with minister's statement

Talks between Air Malta and Alitalia on a business plan are expected to close before the end of this month, a spokesman for the Maltese airline said.

The confirmation came in a reply to questions on the ongoing dispute with pilots, who over the weekend asked for another meeting with Air Malta.

Air Malta said yesterday it had replied to the request and invited the Airline Pilots Association to a meeting on August 31, by which point the business plan was expected to be agreed.

“Air Malta is envisaging that discussions regarding the airline’s way forward will be concluded by then and therefore talks between the two parties [Air Malta and the pilots] will be more constructive and can be concluded relatively quickly,” a spokesman for the airline said.

The government signed a memorandum of understanding with Alitalia last April to rope in the Italian carrier as a strategic partner. Talks with Alitalia over the purchase of a 49 per cent stake in Air Malta were to be concluded last month, but the government asked for an extension.

Alitalia is 49 per cent owned by Etihad of the United Arab Emirates, and talks have been held with Etihad’s top brass.

The business plan is expected to map out the future of Air Malta after the expiry of a five-year restructuring programme that failed to make the airline profitable.

Alpa's reaction when this story was published.Alpa's reaction when this story was published.

The government believes the strategic partner can help turn the airline around and enable it to grow. Last week, Tourism Minister Edward Zammit Lewis dismissed reports in the Polish press that Alitalia had pulled out of the deal, saying talks were ongoing.

The government has insisted that the deal will only go ahead if the terms are advantageous to Air Malta and the country.

Meanwhile, talks with Air Malta’s four unions over expired collective agreements have stalled pending the conclusion of the business plan.

However, Alpa went on the warpath last month, decrying the delay in concluding talks on a collective agreement for the pilots.

Pilots have been going to work without jacket and cap in protest, and Alpa also threatened to cause flight delays after the airline rejected the pilots’ demands for higher wage packets that would have cost an additional €6 million.

Air Malta went to court last month in an attempt to stop Alpa from escalating industrial action. The airline had argued industrial action would cripple it at a critical juncture of its talks with a strategic partner.

However, the court said the right to industrial action was protected by the Constitution and the airline’s financial state had no bearing on the matter.

Over the weekend, Alpa president Domenic Azzopardi said the pilots were being patient and not giving in to the management’s “provocation” and wanted a last-ditch attempt at negotiations.

Minister appeals for good sense

In a statement this afternoon, the Tourism Minister appealed for good sense and encouraged pilots not to let pique put the job of all Air Malta workers and many others in the tourism sector at risk.

The pilots' reaction not to want to wait until August 31 for a meeting was disproportionate and not based on common sense.

Alpa, the minister said, should understand that it was useless putting more pressure on the airline and it was disappointing that rather than collaborate for the airline to be safeguarded, it was wasting time on useless tit for tats.

* With additional reporting by Matthew Xuereb

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