Interview: Air Malta CEO on growing competition

State-owned Air Malta is one of those small European flag carriers that many observers consider an endangered species, ground between the huge multinationals and equally large European LCCs. The company’s CEO, Clifford Chetcuti, believes his company can navigate the challenges. —Interviewed by Alan Dron
Credit: Air Malta

What do you see as Air Malta’s main business focus? Our core business is and will remain “destination Malta.” Our primary scope and objective is to support the local economy, and we see a mini-hub developing for transiting. In the long term, we’re pushing for investment to improve the airport. We believe a hub will give us the edge to sell more. It’s government policy to develop Malta as an aviation center. We’re going to revamp and relaunch Air Malta Holidays, dynamically packaging flights and hotels inbound to Malta. I’m very positive about our prospects.

Malta has become a hive of LCC activity. How do you compete? Two years ago we were on the verge of being sold to Alitalia. A lot has happened since then. We’ve had two years of growth, with 21 new routes and new aircraft. We had 2 million passengers in 2018 compared to 1.7 million the previous year.

We’re going to focus in the next two years on consolidating operations, increasing frequencies on routes we know. We unbundled our fares in 2017 so we can compete better with the LCCs and are developing more ancillary revenue streams. Our prices are becoming more and more competitive. We’re also going to be making sure that our customer experience matches our brand expectations; we’re going to hybrid status in economy class, with a greatly enhanced business class.

You launched a series of intra-European routes last year that didn’t touch Malta, for example between Sicily and Sardinia to the UK. They didn’t last long. What went wrong? The rationale was to try to increase our distribution within the intra-European market. It didn’t provide the results we expected and we’re no longer going to do that. The UK is our main market, with 21 weekly flights to London this winter. We’re very UK-friendly as a country and we want to be known as the most Brexit-friendly country in Europe.

Your fleet consists of seven Airbus A320ceos and three A320neos. What are your fleet growth plans? We’re replacing an A320ceo with another neo. It’s planned for next April, but we already know it’s delayed, so we’ll damp-lease in an aircraft to substitute until it arrives. We hope it shows up by the end of July, beginning of August. In the next four years, we’re replacing all our aircraft. We’re looking at the possibility of 11 aircraft in the next two years; over the next five years, we’re looking at 14. Going from the ceo to the neo gives us an increase in capacity from 168 to 180 seats. We’re looking at the Airbus A321XLR and that enables us to look at New York and India.

Irish LCC Ryanair has announced that it is buying a new startup on the island, Malta Air, in a joint venture with the Maltese government, and initially will place six of its Boeing 737-800s with that carrier. How will that affect Air Malta? We don’t see it as a threat. We are here to support Malta Inc. Malta Air will fly to Europe. ... I see us collaborating with them on Malta Inc. I believe it will make the cake bigger. Around 40 airlines operate into Malta, so competition is tough.

Do you see Air Malta joining an alliance? At this moment, no. But come the right partner and we’re open to discussion. We’re aiming for low-cost pricing and distribution methods with legacy service. Although there’s much more to be done, Air Malta is becoming more vibrant and more relevant.

 

 

Alan Dron

Based in London, Alan is Europe & Middle East correspondent at Air Transport World.


 

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