For one short summer in 2000, travellers had the opportunity of flying from Malta to New York’s JFK airport efficiently without having to connect through a hub like London or Frankfurt. Passengers and travel agencies could book the flights directly through Air Malta, which was responsible for selling the seats.
These flights allowed travellers to fly to or from New York in a little under 10 hours. Air Malta was thought to be specifically eyeing the large Maltese diaspora populations in the Eastern United States, a demographic the United States Census Bureau identified to be around 27,000 individuals in 2013.
Both the aircraft and flight crew were chartered from the American airline American Trans Air, a common practice in the airline industry known as wet leasing. The outbound KM870 flights would leave Malta on Mondays and Fridays at 1:40 pm Malta time and arrive 10 hours later at 14:10 New York time (8:10pm Malta time). The return KM871 flights from Kennedy would depart at 12:05pm New York time (18:05pm Malta time) and arrive at Luqa at 11:40am the following day.
Since the American airline’s Boeing 757’s lacked the range to fly the entire 7,400 kilometre flight non-stop, they would land at Ireland’s Shannon airport to refuel: this technical stop however, in contrast to connection flights, did not see the passengers disembarking the aircraft, and rarely took more than 45 minutes.
At it’s heyday, American Trans Air, which later rebranded to ATA Airlines, before declaring bankruptcy and closing down in 2008, was the world’s largest charter airline. Charter airlines differ from scheduled carriers by catering specifically to individual needs or operating on short notice. ATA offered a wide mix of services that saw it selling individual flights to travel agencies to booking round the world cruise ship style itineraries.
Air Malta choosing ATA was no coincidence; as the largest and most reliable provider of aircraft ad-hoc services, Air Malta had gotten acquainted with ATA in the mid 1980’s, when the American air carrier also operated a Boeing 727 on behalf of the Maltese flag carrier on inter-European flights to destinations such as London and Paris.
Ultimately, the JFK flights only spanned the summer of 2000, terminating in September. Air Malta was rumored to have made such a significant loss on the flights that the airline’s appetite for trying to find ways to connect the archipelago with the country’s overseas diaspora was permanently exhausted.
Prior to this experiment, Air Malta also chartered, for much briefer periods, a Boeing 767 from Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, which flew Malta-Kennedy direct in the mid 1990’s and an Air Lanka Lockheed L1011 that flew to Australia directly in 1992, the latter of which was abandoned after only 20 flights.