There are some events in life that you can clearly recall and remember. Where you were, what you heard, who was around you and how you felt at that precise moment in time. When you remember them today, these events can elicit positive or negative feelings. For example, although I was not involved in aviation at all at the time, I clearly remember watching live on our TV at home when the second aircraft smashed into the World Trade Center in 2001. The pure horror at the implications of what I was witnessing. I also clearly remember my first solo, for example, climbing out on the departure runway of Falcon Field, Phoenix, Arizona, thinking, “Can you actually believe I am doing this?” At that thought, my mind elicits excitement.
Unfortunately, however, I do not recall those same positive feelings when I think about the moment that the COVID-19 pandemic reached Maltese shores. Having just came back from a 3 week holiday in New Zealand, I was looking forward to continue professionally building what we had started at work. I vividly remember being at the office and learning that the Maltese government was rapidly closing most air links, some of which had been established for decades, without even missing a flight. I was literally speechless, and immediately realised the situation was so serious that it would impact the lives, careers and livelihoods of each and every one of us.
A good number of friends, from within and outside of the industry, told me, “Aviation will never be what it was.” Some even decided to switch to a different industry with no hope of returning in the immediate future. At that point, we did not know the particularities of SARS-CoV-2, its prognosis, and much less when, or better if, to expect a vaccine. I remember flying to London Heathrow, going out for my walk-around and hearing a deafening silence. For us pilots, that was purely unbelievable. The hustle, bustle of a major airport hub was no more. But despite the grim outlook for aviation at that point, my constant quest for learning had taught me that no crisis lasts forever, to expect a rebound. I was, and remain, always convinced that the aviation industry would return. And when it did, it would do so with a bang.
In March 2021 alone, Malta International Airport registered a 93% drop in traffic compared to March 2019. However, there is a silver lining. One year on, albeit with logistical difficulties, vaccines are being rolled out in record time. In Malta, the latest communication by the Health Ministry is that we can expect herd immunity by June, and everyone vaccinated by the 15th of August 2021. This success places Malta in a unique position, with the opportunity of being a catalyst for an industry positioned at a historic crossroads of time.
Firstly, being an island on the outermost region of the European Union, air travel is a fundamental pillar of the island’s economy. To fuel and ride the wave of a 20s economic boom, accessibility to the Maltese islands is critical. To power this link, it is absolutely crucial that a fair and competitive market is assured. Competition fuels growth. Air Malta and other air carriers must be given the opportunity to fairly compete on a level playing field. While the government has requested state aid for the national carrier, the company should be run without any political interference and should play a fundamental role in providing air links to major hubs so crucial to the economy.
Secondly, the Maltese industry should be supported with adequate and consolidated resources and infrastructure: both in the physical world and in the digital space. The provision of resources should not be reactive, but proactive. I like to describe aviation as an ‘industry of lag’. Many times, there is a lag in economic terms between an event, and its consequences. State entities and private enterprises should learn to anticipate growth or demand for a need or service and provide the infrastructure to cater for that need before they are needed. This will ensure that the industry will have on-demand resources to cater for expected, and unexpected, opportunities.
Thirdly, the Maltese islands are becoming a hub for digitalisation. Our vision is to become a hub for tech entrepreneurs to come ply their trade, and invest, on the island and provide technological solutions which complement our lives, whether at home, out and about, or at work. There should be a harmonised growth between the quest for digitalisation and the aerospace domain. This will be evidenced in various ICT areas: eLearning, blockchain, unmanned air systems, and new technologies in the airline domain such as New Distribution Capabilities (NDC) should be grown in tandem.
Finally, we have learnt time and time again that the fundamental driving force of the Maltese economy is our people, our British education system, and our ability as a nation to drive forward. And to do that, and to carry out all of the above, it is imperative that education in the sector is heavily invested in. We should incentivise Maltese youth to access the system, and create, design and develop learning experiences which will not only serve the local community, but which can be marketed globally. And, yes, I am not going to pretend to live in a bubble and ignore recent events which may have tarnished our reputation. But Malta is better than that, it is a nation of perseverance, and with good, honest, work and a great vision, we can power aviation to become a sustainable pillar of our economy.