ECONOMY

Olympic Air union blames EU ‘extortion’

Unionists at state airline Olympic Airways appeared yesterday to back down from their absolute opposition to a privatization of the ailing firm, although they said that under the current «extraordinarily difficult» circumstances, the government should not engage in talks with likely buyers. The government is about to enter into talks with shipowner Stamatis Restis over the sale of a 70 percent stake in Olympic Airways. In a press conference given by the federation of Olympic Airways unions (OSPA), its leaders said that what concerns them most of all is to safeguard all jobs. OSPA unionists said they will write an open letter to Prime Minister Costas Simitis and all 300 members of Parliament, asking them to support Olympic Airways’ remaining a state company and to safeguard the 10,000 jobs in the company. OSPA, in return, will «contribute toward finding acceptable solutions for the growth of the company.» Olympic Airways has long been considered to be grossly overstaffed and underperforming. In a previous, failed attempt to privatize the company, all major bidders had said they planned to slash the work force by half and curtail some of its operations. OSPA’s president, Manolis Patestos, said that Olympic Airways is going through a very difficult phase. He lay the blame not on company operations, but on the European Commission and its «extortionary» fine. «The problem is political and we must tackle it as such,» he said. «We will defend the company and will mobilize in every direction. It is the government’s duty to do the same,» Patestos said. The OSPA president said that Transport and Energy Commissioner Loyola de Palacio is pursuing her own agenda. «Ms de Palacio wants to leave only three or four major European airlines standing and limit the other national carriers to a regional role. For this reason, the government must not allow Olympic to share Sabena’s fate,» he said. Last year Belgian flag carrier Sabena became the first European flag carrier to go bust when a government restructuring package, which had to respect EU rules, failed to stem its losses. Since then, the EU airline industry has been wondering which carrier will be next as smaller state-owned firms struggle to come to terms with the harsher new economic conditions. Olympic’s latest available figures, for 2000, showed a pretax loss of 95 million euros.