Thursday, February 17, 2011 ,
Air Malta: The politicians’ milch cow
Finally, the Air Malta pigeons, whether leaded or otherwise, are coming home to roost. And during their flight over the years, starting from the early 1970s to date, we, the public, have had to pay the price to nurture what has been also a prime politicians’ cow, serving as one of the major founts of political (and vote-getting) patronage.
Yes. it is the politicians and not its employees who made the airline into what it has sadly become, verging on the brink of extinction. The concept of setting it up was very sound and far-sighted, indeed one major political plus. But the subsequent “use” of the airline as a politicians’ milch cow eroded the originally very sound idea.
I was asked into Air Malta’s board of directors in July 1987 by the late Joseph Fenech, then responsible for the airline. The 1987 board, chaired like most of those before it by Albert Mizzi, had to deal with two major political scandals. One was that some 250 or so employees (totally unrequired) were taken on by Minister Wistin Abela in the run up to the 1987 election. Two was the fact that a substantial number of the lowest level employees were given promotions in the same 1987 electoral run-up. This was done on the strength of a flimsy excuse for an interview, in each case, where employees were asked the equivalent of name, rank and serial number and, subsequently, promoted.
Just stop and add up what the 250 odd extras employed in early 1987 as well as those promoted at the same time have amounted to in cost and your mind starts to boggle.
But there is more, much more.
First of all, our 1987 board could perforce only do justice by those not promoted pre-1987 elections, of various hues and colours, by upgrading them to the level of those irregularly promoted. Even in so doing we found massive resistance from the resident trade union supposed to defend the rights of and rectify the wrongs and injustices done to employees.
As a board we also found something, if my memory serves me right, like 1,420 employees and we determined not to let this number rise despite substantial political pressure to the contrary. When we were removed in 1992 I believe we more or less left the employee level around the same we had found it; believe me a remarkable achievement!
I must add that, in 1987, I was one of the persons who was stating the airline should do with half of its workforce if it were to survive and this is quite close to the figure being mooted today – of about 700! I got to this figure simply by looking at the operations of other airlines of the time, such as Air Europe. Obviously, in those better times a gradual workforce reduction would have been planned.
In 1992, the mathematics started to take off again. The board of 1992-1997, chaired by Joseph N. Tabone, left the airline with some 1,750 employees, another massive increase of 300 employees plus. Now work out the figures for that too!
Then comes along the next board following the Labour Party electoral victory of 1996, chaired by Louis Grech, now of Euro parliamentary fame. This chairman was retained by the Nationalist government of 1998 till the switch of Air Malta minister, from Josef Bonnici to Austin Gatt. Some shocking financial remuneration numbers came out at this point of ministerial change, a far cry from the few hundred of Malta liri we received per annum as board members (which I ensured were paid to a charity). And, in Mr Grech’s tenure, Air Malta’s workforce rose to over 2,000 employees. Now work that out too!
The end result: an airline that should have functioned with some 600 to 700 employees ended up with a workforce of over 2,000 employees! Now that is really something.
Well done to all concerned!