Air Malta – Boeing B 720B

Introduction

I am aware of the fact that for many people, the isolation that comes with social distancing is distressing and may be the cause of concern and anxiety; and by no means to I want to diminish or disregard the struggle of anyone finding it difficult to cope in the face of this unprecedented situation.

For me though, the pandemic has also had its good sides. It has certainly allowed me to slow down considerably, especially given how much travelling I was doing before the outbreak. And when I feel the need to escape the physical confines of the current situation, my happy place are the memories of the many places I have been fortunate enough to visit over the years. And of course, those memories tend to come with a very heavy dosage of airplanes and airports.

This blog post is not so much of a trip report. I’d rather avoid calling it a trip down memory lane too because that is just lame… But rather, when I went through the photos I am posting here, I kept wondering to myself ‘man, how on earth did they manage back then…?’. I like to think that in many years to come, people will look back on 2020 and think the same; and then come to the realisation that while perhaps nothing is still the same, at least it has changed for the better.

So, it’s 1987, 33 years ago. I’m a slightly awkward thirteen year-old adolescent. My face, or rather my upper lip, is covered in a dark, downy fluff which I’d like to get rid of. But rumour has it among the other boys at school that if I take my dad’s shaver to get rid of the stuff, it’ll only come back stronger, until eventually I’ll have it all over my face and will have to get rid of it on a daily basis – unless of course, I want to end up looking like captain caveman…

Buying a ticket

In 1987 the world wide web is still three years away. As such, tickets have to be purchased with a travel agent or directly with the airline by phone or by visiting one of their airport or town offices.

But at least for your efforts the airlines have the decency to provide you with a ticket wallet for your travel documents.

The airline ticket is something that exists independently of the flight booking or PNR. The ticket has a document number and a ticket number. The first three numbers are the airline designator. So in this case, 643 marks an Air Malta document. The airline ticket is a booklet with a maximum of four coupons, the passenger receipt and the audit coupon.

And yes, back in 1987 a hand-written ticket is actually quite normal, as long as the validator in the top right corner is visible. Bascally, every coupon in the ticket had a sheet of red carbon paper at the back, so what is written on the first page is printed on all subsequent pages too.

In Economy Class there are only few different booking classes, such as the APEX, PEX, SUPERPEX and Full fare. The main difference between the PEX fares and the full fare is that the fomer have a restricted validity period, for example one month from the date of original departure.

Check-in

In the absence of computers or a check-in system, in Malta at least, check-in is done completely manually. Which means that first the station prints a passenger list with all the names. Then a twin desk of counters opens for check-in, with two agents sharing large sheets of papers with small stickers on them with seat numbers. To issue the boarding pass, the check-in agent first peels off the sticker and stamps it to an empty boarding pass. Then they write down the seat assignment on the passenger list. Check-in closes when there are no stickers left or all the names have been ticked off…

The Boeing B 720

When the Maltese government decided to set up its own airline, it soon realised there was no expertise on the island to do so. Initially, the tender to support the government in setting up an airline was supposed to go to Pan Am. But then at the last moment Pakistan International Airline made a bid that was simply too good to refuse – because it also included three used Boeing B 720s. At the time, the offer faced a lot of opposition in Malta, because it was obvious that the aircraft PIA was offering Air Malta were already quite old. Even so, the Maltese government went ahead and in April of 1974, Air Malta set up operation. Later on, they would purchase two more of the type from Western Airlines to operate a total of five aircraft. The Boeing B 720 remained with Air Malta until 1989, when they were replaced with a fleet of six factory new Boeing B 737-200s.

I more or less grew up with the Boeing B 720. We lived in St. George’s bay, which is quite near the airport in Malta. The P&W JT3D-1 turbofan engines were outrageously loud by today’s standard and made a very distinct noise that sounded a lot like a whistle. As such, they were rather hard to miss.

I always enjoyed the B 720 because it felt very solid, as though it was built to last. But as a child you don’t realise or understand that nothing lasts for ever. When I was young I was always keen to try out new aircraft when we travelled as a family. When Air Malta started taking delivery of the B 737s, I would always hope there would be an aircraft change and that we’d get one of those instead of the rickety old 720s. But today I must say, I really miss the aircraft.

Catering

Back in those days, catering was not one of Air Malta’s fortes, and quite frankly they could have done without asking your for beef or chicken, because most of the time it was impossible to identify what was on the tray in front of you anyway. I haven’t got any photos of Air Malta meals from back then, but I did find some interesting ‘accessories’ in my archives.

Conclusion

Air Malta is now 46 years old, like me. After the Boeing B 720 and the B 737-200 the company went on to operate the B 737-300, -400 and -700, the B 727-100 and -200, the BAe ATP, the Avro RJ70, the Airbus A 310-200, and a few wet-leased types. Right now, the company is in the process of replacing its A 320 fleet with the A 320NEO. It remains to be seen how Air Malta will weather the storm, especially given that tourism is Malta’s bread and butter and the airline’s main role is to deliver fresh tourists to the island.

The BAe ATP and the Airbus A 310 are the only two types operated by Air Malta that I never flew on with the airline. The B 737s were always fine. The Avro RJ70 was dreaful and so cramped it really was nothing short of a human rights violation. But the Boeing B 720B will always be the best of the lot. Probably not just beause it dates back to an era when airlines simply saw now need to have to pack in the tourist and could therefore afford to give passengers at least some comfort – even in Economy Class. But I also think I will always be very fond of the B 720B because I associate it with summer holidays at the beach in Malta.

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