By Karine Kalantarian
Armenian Airlines, the ailing state-run carrier, will soon file for bankruptcy in the face of mounting debts and falling revenues, a well-informed aviation source said on Wednesday. Its demise would further loosen the Armenian government's control over civil aviation.
The source close to the government's civil aviation department told RFE/RL that the company will be declared bankrupt "in the very near future" because of the failure of long-running attempts to improve its notoriously inefficient and corrupt management.
Armenian Airlines, which currently owns no aircraft meeting Western safety and environmental standards, has run up debts exceeding $20 million in recent years and is a huge drain on scarce state resources.
Aviation experts said bankruptcy proceedings could protect the company against lawsuits by its foreign partners and speed up the emergence of a major private Armenian carrier in the coming months. According to its former executive director, Ruben Grigorian, liquidation is the only way out of the aggravating situation. "There has been no remedy against its poor management," he admitted.
The financial position of Armenian Airlines went from bad to worse last January following the loss of its flagship Airbus A310 passenger jet leased from a French aviation company in 1998. It still owes the latter $6 million and is unable to repay the debt.
The A310, which flew to three major western European cities, was grounded with a serious engine problem. Unable to pay for the $1 million repair bill, the Armenian Airlines management decided to abandon the plane and lease a temporary replacement, a modified version of the Russian-made Tupolev-154. The plane currently flies only to Paris.
The sacking earlier this month of Hovannes Yeritsian, the controversial chief of the aviation department, appears to have precipitated the decision to file for bankruptcy. Yeritsian was opposed to the company's planned privatization, insisting that the state must control Armenia's main airline. His exit may thus pave the way for the sector's restructuring.
Meanwhile, a group of wealthy Armenian businessmen are reportedly planning to set up a new airline that could lease two or three Western-made planes for flights to Europe as early as next month. The RFE/RL source, who asked not to be identified, said it would be well placed to replace Armenian Airlines as the main national carrier.
The state-owned company's main asset is a fleet of a dozen aging Soviet-made aircraft that mainly fly to Russia and other parts of the Commonwealth of Independent States.