In Europe, there are more and more airlines from which you cannot normally buy tickets, but are delighted with them on charter flights and increasingly also on scheduled flights. One of the aviation companies specializing in ACMI and charter services is Avion Express Malta, whose machines are often completely white with no indication of the operator. This operator was examined more closely on two Air Malta flights.
The wet lease and charter business is really booming this summer and for completely different reasons. Some airlines hire additional aircraft and crews during peak periods to offer more capacity. Others suffer from an acute shortage of staff or chaos in their own flight operations and can be "helped out" - for a fee. Another reason may well be that the costs per block hour at the ACMI provider can be lower than in your own production. The classic: A machine is canceled at short notice due to a defect and another airline is commissioned to carry out the flight in order to be able to save as much as possible on sensitive additional costs that can arise for substitute transport and/or compensation.
Avion Express Malta is an airline that does not operate scheduled flights on its own account. You fly exclusively for tour operators, large sports clubs and other charter clients as well as for other airlines. It belongs to the Avia Solutions Group, just like Klasjet, Smartlynx, Air Explore and Avion Express (Lithuania). The fleet, registered on the Maltese AOC, currently consists of 37 Airbus A320s and two A321s. The average age is 14,1 years. This company has been on the air since May 2019.
Only sparse references to the wet lease carrier
One of many clients for ACMI flights is Air Malta, the national airline of the Republic of Malta. During midsummer 2023, this will allow some routes, including Luqa-Vienna, to be served with Airbus A320s from Avion Express Malta. Contrary to international regulations, the Maltese carrier does not specifically point out this circumstance. Passengers must be informed of the identity of the so-called operating carrier at the earliest possible time, but no later than when boarding the aircraft. Neither during the booking nor at check-in (both online and at the counter) nor during boarding does Air Malta point out the fact that Avion Express Malta is the subcontractor of the operating airline.
Many airlines that use wet-leased machines have their design affixed to them and often insist that an "operated by" sticker be attached. It goes without saying that the client must pay for the branding costs. Air Malta does without it, so the 9H-MLD used in the test flights appears completely in white. If you look closely at the front door, you can still clearly see the detached “Go Cibao” lettering, because this Airbus A320 was previously used on behalf of Sky Cana.
Passengers who do not know that they are not flying with the booked airline will see for the first time on the safety card at the seat that they are not sitting in an Air Malta machine. "Economy coatings", i.e. full white with only a small sticker, are not uncommon for the state airline of the Mediterranean country, because these occur again and again. Aside from the registration, the 9H-MLD carries no operator cue at all.
The crew, wearing Avion Express uniforms, only sparsely mention in the announcements that the flight is operated by Avion Express Malta. During the two test flights, the company name was mentioned only once by the purser and the captain casually during the announcements. Otherwise one spoke exclusively in the name of the client Air Malta.
For several years now, Malta's state airline, which is in deficit and which is to be replaced this year by a successor modeled on Alitalia/Ita Airways, has no longer been a real full-service carrier. The fare system has been largely aligned with that of low-cost airlines and attempts are made to keep up with them in terms of price on many routes. In contrast to Ryanair, with which the company has a sales partnership on some routes, it operates a business class.
Tedious homepage of the Maltese state carrier
Air Malta's homepage is not exactly intuitive to use and booking additional services in particular can be confusing. Depending on what you want, you may have to purchase a voucher, which you then have to present at the check-in counter or at the boarding gate as "proof of payment". Other carriers make it much easier for passengers and provide clear apps or intuitive homepages. After Air Malta is supposed to be "replaced" anyway, there doesn't seem to be much investment left here. By the way, Air Malta uses the Saber system behind the front end.
If you have "fought your way" to the web check-in and it does not spit out any error messages after entering the PNR and passenger name, the self-service check-in is easy to use. Only a few instructions have to be confirmed, the seats selected and then you can download the boarding passes or have them sent to you by e-mail. iPhone users also get a pkpass file for the wallet, but smartphone owners with the much more widespread Android operating system look through the tube, because they don't offer anything at all for Google Wallet. In contrast to other airlines, the seats can be freely selected during web check-in, subject to availability, at no extra cost. You can also check in at the counter at no extra charge and are not forced to check in yourself at a machine or via the Internet.
Fast check-in at the counter
There was practically no waiting time at the counters during the test flights, but this is only a snapshot, because especially during the height of summer it can sometimes take longer when passengers start a discussion with the agents about luggage that is too heavy or not booked. Since Air Malta has many passengers from tour operators and some providers do not clearly state in the travel documents that 23 kilograms means that a suitcase may weigh a maximum of 23 kilograms and not any number of pieces of luggage that together may not weigh more than 23 kilograms heated discussions and sometimes additional payments during the height of summer are the order of the day. But that also happens with many other carriers.
During test flights KM514/KM515, the Airbus A320 operated by Avion Express Malta, registration 9H-MLD, was used. As already mentioned: The machine appears in full white. The aircraft leased from Avolon is 14,9 years old and has previously flown for Air China, among others. This A320 joined Avion Express Malta in June 2022.
Decent passenger space
The cabin is furnished with blue Recaro seats, but the legroom - apart from row 1 and the exit rows - is not exactly great. It is quite tight, but this circumstance is increasingly becoming the standard for this type of machine – at least in Europe. There are no special C-seats for travelers in business class, but the “empty middle seat” on economy class chairs, which is dominant in Europe, is used. Potentially annoying for C passengers: Avion Express Malta does not use a class separator on the 9H-MLD.
It is therefore not surprising that the crew has to ensure that overhead bins remain free for Business Class passengers, because on both flights the overhead bins were quickly full and free storage space was scarce. In economy class, Air Malta allows one piece in the IATA standard format, as well as a rather small bag. The cabin baggage was checked neither on the outward nor on the return flight.
On flight KM515, which went from Vienna to Luqa, 9H-MLD was on time at the Austrian capital's airport. Nevertheless, the plane caught a 30-minute delay, because the boarding was carried out so slowly and comfortably by the passengers that the slot was missed. The captain had to inform that because of this you have to wait half an hour. Particularly slow boarding happens again and again in Vienna and this is probably due to a combination of the comfort of the passengers and staff or crews who are not quite willing to ask the travelers for more speed.
Avion crews place a high value on safety
The Avion Express Malta crew was very friendly on KM515, but the purser's announcements were sometimes difficult to understand because the English-language announcements had a strong accent. On KM514, this was not the case, at least for the cabin crew, because it was spoken clearly and in the best native speaker English. But there was a "surprise" from the cockpit, because the captain made his announcements with an extremely strong French influence, so that a lot was more of a guessing game. In some cases, English words were simply replaced by French ones. Incidentally, with a large airline from the home country of the pilot, in European traffic, the internationally customary English is very often "don't caressed" and - at least from the cockpit - only spoken in French...
Irrespective of this: The Avion Express cabin crew made a very hard-working impression on both flights and actively helped the passengers to stow their hand luggage. Extremely positive in terms of flight safety: The flight attendants took a lot of time to explain to the travelers in the exit row how to behave in an emergency and explicitly asked whether - if they didn't trust themselves to do the important task or simply couldn't - swap seats with another passenger. This is worth emphasizing because more and more airlines are marketing the seats at the emergency exits as "XL seats" or "with more legroom" for a fee, and some crews are rather inadequate in instructing them according to the motto "look at the safety card".
Missing class separator leads to confusion
Business Class passengers received the Air Malta C-Meal. The customer's purchasable beverages and snacks were offered in economy class. The price level is rather high, as is customary in the industry, and accordingly the interest of the passengers on both flights was kept within narrow limits. In contrast to Mallorca, Malta is not a destination where passengers tend to “fill up” before or during the flight. Of course, there are always exceptions, because unfortunately so-called "unruly PAX" is also high season in midsummer.
The fact that there was no class divider in the 9H-MLD naturally also led to questions to the crew as to why “those up front” get something to eat and you only get something for a fee. Incidentally, only debit and credit cards such as Mastercard, Visa and Maestro are accepted. Cash and the German isolated solution Girocard are not accepted. Anyone hoping for films and/or music or even WLAN will be disappointed, because that simply does not exist in this Airbus A320 from Avion Express Malta. The "highlight" of the entertainment is Air Malta's in-flight magazine.
The cabin made a clean impression on both flights. You can't say the A320 was 'clinically clean' as the carpet has seen better days and the toilets didn't smell fresh of cleaning products either, but it definitely wasn't dirty. The cabin made a neat and tidy impression. The age of almost 15 years could not be seen in the cabin of this jet.
Air Malta makes passengers wait 45 minutes on the plane to disembark
Flight KM515 took off 30 minutes late, thanks to slow boarding and a missed slot. These could no longer be recovered. But the real chaos started after landing at Luqa Airport, because the 9H-MLD was parked on the apron, which is located near the old terminal, the stairs were prepared, but there was no sign of buses. A whopping 45 minutes and several announcements from the purser and captain later, the first “shuttle” finally came along to the distant terminal. However, this sloppiness cannot be attributed to Avion Express Malta, but is the responsibility of the client, i.e. Air Malta. Ground Handling obviously forgot that there was another flight coming from Vienna and had no buses available at short notice.
It is almost a farce that as a passenger you then “overtake” the luggage with the apron bus, for which you had to wait 45 minutes, because they drove leisurely in the direction of the terminal. There was a further 20 minutes waiting time for the luggage to be handed over. The "chaos" may also have its background, because Air Malta used to have its own ground handling. The airline handled itself completely in Luqa and also looked after one or the other customer airline. Towards the end of the previous year, this part of the company was transformed into a newly founded Ltd. spun off and sold to Italy. Since then, the handling quality that passengers can perceive has become more chaotic, subjectively. On flight KM514, the agents didn't know whether a passenger was already on one of the apron buses or not, which is why everyone was "temporarily stored" and then the ground staff asked their way through. The traveler was of course on the first bus, but please.
Flight KM514 operated by Avion Express Malta was completely uneventful. A seat that was blocked at Wien-Luqa due to a defect has since been repaired and is available again. At the Austrian airport, deboarding took place via the gangway, but unfortunately the passengers did it at a rather leisurely pace. There was also no long wait in Vienna for the suitcases to be handed over.
Conclusion: Pure flight performance is good, but the customer screwed it up on the ground
Anyone expecting anything special from a flight operated by Avion Express Malta will be disappointed. The company specializes in bringing passengers from A to B for other airlines and tour operators. As a subcontractor, you are careful not to appear as visually as possible. Apart from the linguistic "surprises", the crews made a good, hard-working and helpful impression. The aircraft itself was perfectly fine and the cabin in even better shape than some of the older Air Malta A320s.
The latter is worth mentioning because many ACMI providers use older aircraft with passenger areas that definitely need to be refreshed. As mentioned in detail, this was not the case for the two Air Malta flights operated by Avion Express. Deficiencies are obviously taken care of very quickly.
Since there is no on-board entertainment, this could not be tested either. The same applies to WLAN, because this was not available either. The quality of the food and beverages from the Air Malta retail catalog has also not been tested. Both flights were fully booked, but the interest of the passengers in buying something was very limited. You simply don't have to eat and/or drink above the clouds at any price.
In summary, it can be stated that the pure flight performance provided by Avion Express Malta corresponds to the standard customary in the industry and that the crews take the necessary time for explanations with regard to safety. Unfortunately, the latter is not common everywhere. Air Malta is responsible for the chaotic conditions on the ground itself, because the subcontractor is only responsible for the execution of the flights, but the customer himself for the "trappings". It could well be that, given the Maltese government's announcement that Air Malta is to be relaunched on a successor who is already missing one or the other employee or who is demotivated in view of the unclear future? When it comes to ground handling, the effects of spin-off and sale are – subjectively felt – perceptible. Identification with the "home carrier" is pretty much non-existent.
This product test was conducted by Aviation.Direct without prior notice. Neither Air Malta nor Avion Express Malta knew in advance about the implementation. The two airlines also did not provide any free tickets or other benefits. The costs were borne exclusively by Aviation.Direct and/or the authors. The airlines mentioned have not exerted any influence.