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By Karine Kalantarian
Pilots and other personnel of Armenian Airlines (AA) renewed on Friday demands for the payment of their back wages in anticipation of the imminent liquidation of the crumbling state-run carrier.

A trade union representing the aviation workers, who have not been paid for eight months, discussed the matter at an emergency meeting that came as the company was banned from entering Russia’s airspace over its outstanding debts to Russian air navigation services.

AA’s failure to repay the $2.2 million debt to the Rosavianavigatsia agency led to the cancellation of a Friday flight to Moscow that left dozens of passengers stranded at Yerevan airport. Some of them went to the nearby building of the government’s civil aviation agency to protest the delay.

“We paid for our tickets,” said one woman. “Why aren’t they taking care of us?”

Officials said afterwards that the Russians agreed to grant the Armenian side a two-week reprieve and that the scheduled flight will take place on Saturday.

The forced delay underscored grave financial problems facing AA. The company, whose debts to local and foreign aviation services are estimated to total $25 million, is expected to be declared bankrupt or liquidated on April 15. The Armenian government decided last week to sell its flight rights to the Armavia private carrier for $15 million.

Armavia, which is 70 percent owned by Russia’s Siberian Airlines, will be able to fly to traditional AA destinations in the next ten years.

The deal will result in mass lay-offs of Armenian Airlines’ 1,500 or so staff. At least 1,000 of them are expected to lose their jobs. The job cuts will be particularly severe among the company’s 320 pilots. The AA workers seem to be resigned to this reality and are now more preoccupied with getting their earned wages.

“Our flights have been regular and fully booked during all this time,” said one of the pilots, Artem Yepremian. “The money [paid for the tickets] has blatantly disappeared. We have repeatedly brought this fact to light.”

The civil aviation authority has promised to gradually pay the AA staff’s back wages by next November with money which it will get from Armavia.

Armenian International Airways (AIA), another private carrier set up last year, is understood to be unhappy with the government’s deal with Armavia. AIA took over most of AA’s flights to Western Europe last fall and will be allowed to operate them only until December 2004. It previously expressed interest in purchasing the state-owned airline but was apparently rebuffed by the government. Some aviation experts say the decision was a mistake.
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