By Armen Zakarian
Armenia’s cash-strapped national airline has cancelled its flights to major European cities after grounding its only plane allowed to land in European airports.
An engine malfunction forced the flagship Airbus A310, on lease to the state-run Armenian Airlines, to return to Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport on Monday, 20 minutes after its takeoff for a regular flight to Paris. It was the second such incident in four months.
About 150 passengers and crew were on board. One passenger told RFE/RL that he heard “strong noise” shortly the takeoff and saw fire brigades and ambulances on standby near the Zvartnots runway as the plane made an emergency landing.
Officials from Armenia’s civil aviation authority and national carrier said the engine needs to undergo repairs before the 19-year-old plane can be back in service. They refused to give any further details and it remained unclear how long the repairs will take. One informed source told RFE/RL that they may cost $2 million, a substantial sum for Armenian Airlines already burdened by millions of dollars of debts.
The passenger jet, leased from a French company in 1998, is only partially covered by insurance. The heavily used plane carried out six flights a week to Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. All of them have been cancelled, leaving only two airlines, British Airways and Austrian Airlines, that carry out direct flights to Armenia from Western Europe.
The head of the civil aviation authority, Hovannes Yeritsian, was said to have flown to Moscow on Tuesday for talks on a temporary lease of a modified version of the Russian Tupolev-154 aircraft which meets the European Union’s noise regulations.
Yeritsian announced late last year that Armenian Airlines has decided to lease two more Airbus A310s. One of them will be in service starting from March 1, he said.
The grounded plane already had one of its two engines replaced following a similar incident on September 17, also on a Paris flight. The plane, which flew Pope John Pope John Paul II back to Rome after his visit to Armenia a week later, landed at Zvartnots 15 minutes after takeoff.
The Armenian Airlines fleet is mainly made up of aging Soviet-made aircraft which do not meet European safety standards. The company is on the list of state-run enterprises which the Armenian government plans to privatize within the next two years.