Patrick O’Brien speaks to Malta Air CEO Diarmuid O’Conghaile about the future prospects of Malta Air now that COVID-19 travel restrictions are starting to be lifted in Europe.

Ryanair has long defied conventional insight. Its garish yellow and blue livery, much like its colourful history, is an assault on the tourism senses and a welcome constant in the skies above. While other airlines try to woo passengers with sophisticated ploys, Ryanair slaps them hard with its low prices.

The strategy has served it well. Ryanair is the airline of choice for a lot of travellers, serving over 40 per cent of the population, appealing to short-haul flyers who prize cheap fares over other frills.

Since last year, however, Ryanair has changed course. Rather than relying on just one brand, it has diversified. First it established an airline in Austria called Lauda, then Poland got Buzz, and in Malta, we got Malta Air.

The services offered on the new airlines are barely distinguishable from that of their parent company ‒ but Ryanair’s commitment is to operate and grow a fully-fledged Malta-based airline that contributes in a large way to Malta’s economic development.

“Ryanair plans to return to 40 per cent of normal flight schedules from July 1, that’s serving over 90 per cent of the routes, subject to government restrictions being lifted,” Malta Air CEO Diarmuid O’Conghaile confirmed.

“Though our passenger forecasts have been halved for the full year relative to what we expected to carry from February 2020, we are optimistic these figures will grow and that we will ramp schedule and passenger capacity over the course of summer into winter.”

In an effort to lower the risk of coronavirus spreading as air travel resumes, the CEO stated that they were “encouraging passengers to wear masks at all airports, and while compulsory on flights for passengers and crew, we have asked airports to use temperature checks on passengers entering.

“All air conditioning units have had surgical-grade filters added, and we will rely more on touchless features during the travel experience, including self-check-in and cashless NFC payments for in-flight purchases. The airline has shared a video on its social media channels notifying customers of the new measures,” he added.

Plans for maintenance hub on island still on course

Though there will be a limited onboard food offering, the good news is that it is confirmed that they will waive all fees for changes of bookings for July and August 2020.

Ryanair is dealing with an unprecedented, historic volume of refunds.

“We can assure all passengers that we aim to get through this backlog in time. We have already dealt with over 40 per cent of these and we can assure all that we are working hard to complete them.”

The government of Malta has always said that the setting up of Malta Air would go a long way for the better sustainability of the tourism industry as well as maintaining its growth momentum. O’Conghaile confirmed that the proposed plans for a maintenance hub on the island and all other objectives were still on course. He also praised the Maltese government for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

To date, Malta Air has been able to avoid any redundancies at the Malta base through the introduction of cost savings.

Ryanair said it expected to report a net loss of more than €100 million for the first three months of the year, with further losses in the second quarter. In a sideswipe at rivals, the company said its return to scheduled services would be rendered more difficult by competing with flag carrier airlines, “who will be financing below-cost selling with the benefit of over €30 billion in unlawful state aid, in breach of both EU state aid and competition.”

It is evident that travel and tourism will grow, not by reverting to what it was, but by adjusting to a world where all activities will have changed. Despite COVID-19 continuing to claim lives, locations around the world are beginning to open again. More travellers are getting on planes. Airlines are reinstating routes. Countries and states have begun to welcome visitors, despite the remaining risks.

For now, travel may look different in a number of ways. People can expect to explore a world of face masks, physical distancing, closed businesses and two-week quarantines in some cases.

As Malta International Airport reopens, Malta Air expects a welcome demand and looks forward to a busy but uncertain schedule ahead.

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