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By Armen Zakarian

A Belgian airline began on Monday long-awaited flights from Los Angeles to Yerevan via Brussels in collaboration with Armenia's struggling state-run carrier.

An Airbus A330 of VG Airlines with 127 passengers on board landed at Yerevan's Zvartnots airport late in the evening, marking the launch of a regular flight service between the two cities that have the largest Armenian populations in the world. It will be jointly operated by VG Airlines and Armenian Airlines twice a week.

Under an agreement signed by the two companies in April, the Armenian side will pay the Belgians $100,000 for every round trip to Los Angeles in return for the right to sell most of the tickets. Officials said that Armenian Airlines will need to fill at least 65 percent of the plane's 239 seats in order to make a profit.

The flights were initially due to start from late May, but were unexpectedly delayed, with the Armenian government's civil aviation department reportedly having second thoughts about financial terms of the deal. Still, the head of the agency, Hovannes Yeritsian defended it on Monday, saying that the new arrangement will prove his numerous critics wrong.

The launch of the new flight service comes as Armenian Airlines is facing the possibility of being barred from flying to Western Europe. The cash-strapped and heavily indebted company has been left without aircraft, whihc can meet the European Union's noise and safety regulation since the grounding of its flagship A310 plane last January.

Armenian Airlines has already been forced to scrap its flights to Amsterdam. According to Yeritsian, it is also likely to be barred from flying to Frankfurt soon. Yeritsian told RFE/RL that only the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris is willing to accept Russian-made Tupolev-154 planes for the time being.

Most of the passengers on board Armenian Airlines flights to Europe are bound for the United States and particularly California, which is home to a large Armenian community.
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