Last updated 4.23pm with reaction by pilots' union

A request by Air Malta for a court to temporarily stop industrial action by the airline's pilots was upheld on Monday.

The pilots launched their industrial action at midnight, delaying several flights by half an hour. The industrial action was called off following the court's decision.

Pilots are reportedly angry that their collective agreement is not being respected, as well as aggrieved by a government decision to strike a deal with Ryanair to create a new airline, Malta Air. They are also insisting that the government, as the airline's shareholder, should guarantee that even if the airline folds, they would get an early retirement scheme of almost €700,000 if they retire aged 55. The government has described the claims as 'ridiculous'.

The airline said in a statement it had requested the court to stop the union, ALPA, "from taking any further illegal action which is prejudicial to the
company and its rights". 

Air Malta said it would be quantifying the damages caused by the action and would seek to recover such damages from pilots.

Early morning flights on Monday - such as London, Rome and Amsterdam - left 30 minutes later than scheduled, after members of the pilots' union voted to call industrial action.

Air Malta disputes union push

"Whereas Air Malta acknowledges that taking industrial action is a right protected by law, such right is not unrestricted and Air Malta cannot bear the consequence of a disagreement between its employees and its shareholder," the airline said on Monday. 

"Air Malta has dedicated resources from top management for months with a view to reaching agreement only to discover that, once reached, not even such agreement was sufficient to satisfy ALPA."

The airline said the union's demands did not qualify as a trade dispute, forfeiting the immunity granted by law to unions and their members, and that the union had failed to give adequate notice to the company of the planned action. 

It insisted it had "bent over backwards" to reach a compromise position that would allow it to compete effectively, appease pilots and avoid disruptions. 

Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi previously said the government would “not bow to pressure” and indicated that pilots were on the warpath because they wanted “ridiculous guarantees on early retirement schemes”.

On Monday morning, he reiterated that stance. 

"Taxpayer funds will NOT guarantee retirement packages of 700,000 euros for each pilot," he tweeted. 

Retirement scheme packages

On Sunday, minister Dr Mizzi had suggested that Air Malta pilots were unhappy because they wanted the government to assure them that an early retirement scheme that allowed them to quit aged 55 with a €700,000 golden handshake would be retained “regardless of what happened to Air Malta”.

That scheme had been introduced by the previous Nationalist administration, he said, adding that if pilots wanted guarantees about the future, the only solution would be to work together with airline management to help the company grow.

“We are committed to making Air Malta a success but we will not be giving out any gifts to the company’s detriment,” he said.

Air Malta also mentioned disagreement over retirement schemes in its statement announcing the industrial action. 

"The interest of one section of the company must not undermine the sustainability and operation of the airline to the detriment of the company and all its employees," the airline said. 

It remains unclear whether EU state aid rules would allow the government to accede to pilots' requests concerning early retirement packages even if it wanted to. 

Pilots' union claims threats, intimidation

In a reaction, Alpa, the pilots' union, said Air Malta seemed intent on distorting indisputable facts, as well as painting a false and unclear picture of the prevalent and current state of affairs.

"It is now clear that Air Malta’s management team has decided to resort to half truths and measures, as well as to blatant and capricious lies, in order to cover the ineptitude and mismanagement which has become prevalent within the higher tiers of the company," the union said, without, however, going into specifics.

"Air Malta’s professional flight crew is entrusted by the airline’s passengers to safely carry out the daily core operations of the company. This is done diligently and to the utmost and best of our members’ ability, who have, on many occasions, unwillingly agreed to forego their legal rights and entitlement when faced with threats and intimidation by the airline’s management. As a necessary consequence, ALPA has had to resort to industrial action in response to the management's numerous attempts to deploy crew illegally against the stipulated procedures, as well as in response to the company’s persistent failure to address concerns relating to the safety and well-being of its members."

The union said that following the court decision, it had temporarily withdrawn industrial action until the merits of the case are considered by the court (on Friday).

It insisted however, that it would not be intimidated by the tactics being adopted by the airline and would, by no means, detract from its obligations towards its members, as well as its responsibilities relating to safeguarding the safety of the airline’s passengers.

In December 2017 Times of Malta had reported that a government idea to offer pilots a tax-free option on part of their salary had set off state aid alarm bells in Brussels.  The government had subsequently denied that it was considering the tax-free idea. 

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