By Hrach Melkumian
The dismal state of affairs in the Armenian civil aviation drew on Friday strong criticism from President Robert Kocharian who said that the sector stands in the way of the country’s development and needs a radical shake-up. But he stopped short of promising any staff changes in the government’s civil aviation agency.
“We can not ignore the situation,” Kocharian told reporters in the southern town of Masis. “In a way, the aviation sector as a whole is becoming an obstacle to the country’s economic development.”
The criticism centered on serious troubles dogging Armenian Airlines, the state-run national carrier which is struggling to remain afloat after its flagship plane was removed from service. The leased Airbus A310, the sole Armenian Airlines plane meeting European safety and noise standards, has been grounded since an engine problem forced it return to Yerevan on a regular flight to Paris in January.
The A310 used to fly to Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt six times a week. Armenian Airlines resumed the flights after securing a temporary replacement, a Russian Tupolev-154M, ten days after the incident. The cash-strapped company, which has run up substantial debts in recent years, needs $1 million to pay for the engine repair.
Kocharian said the government will find “radical solutions” to the problems but did not elaborate on what those could be. The controversial head of the Armenian civil aviation agency, Hovannes Yeritsian, has rejected mounting criticism of his work, accusing the media of unleashing a smear campaign against him.
Yeritsian has recently spoken out against the idea of privatizing Armenian Airlines. The company is formally on the list of state-run enterprises which the government plans to privatize within the next two years. But its future remains uncertain.
According to Kocharian, many of the sector’s problems will be solved with the transfer of Armenia’s main airport to private control. Last December, an Argentine company owned by a billionaire businessman of Armenian descent was granted a 50-year lease on Zvartnots International Airport. Eduardo Eurnekian’s Aerpouertos Argentina group, which runs 33 airports across South America, pledged to invest $50 million to bring the Soviet-era facility into conformity with international standards. In particular, it is due to build a new terminal within the next three years.