Helios Airways will change name, convert to charter carrier

NICOSIA – Cyprus’s Helios Airways, afflicted by the worst aviation disaster in Europe last year, is to wind down as a scheduled airline and convert to a low-cost charter carrier with a new name, executives said yesterday. Helios, a subsidiary of the Libra Holidays Group, will remain as a legal entity but without operations while it awaits the results of investigations into the crash in Greece last August 14, in which 121 people were killed. New company ajet will take over Helios’s aircraft and operate primarily as a charter operator to complement other activities of holding company Libra, said ajet Managing Director Bryan Field. Cyprus-listed Libra, a UK operator specializing in Cyprus, acquired Helios in December 2004. Field said the group had plans to convert the business model of the carrier before the crash. «A scheduled airline doesn’t really fit with the type of business that Libra represents. A tour operator really needs a charter-type airline,» Field told Reuters in an interview. Field said ajet was in the final stages of acquiring its licenses, with an estimated starting date of March 25. Libra has dismissed suggestions that the changeover to a charter operation was spurred by the barrage of bad publicity the airline got in the wake of the August crash, the worst to hit either Greece or Cyprus. «The (conversion) plans were there well before the accident. They were delayed as a result of the accident,» Field said. Greek authorities are expected to release their findings about the accident in April. The airline’s Boeing 737-800, flying from Larnaca in Cyprus to Prague, was on autopilot for more than two hours after a suspected faulty decompression system rendered its two pilots unconscious, leaving a steward with a trainee pilot’s license grappling at its controls. The plane, trailed by two Greek fighters when the plane lost radio contact, smashed into a mountain north of Athens after running out of fuel. «The majority of our business is UK-based, and after the tragic accident none of the tour operators from the UK deserted us,» Field said. «They stayed with us… but what they had said was that, going forward, a different identity would be helpful.» Most of ajet’s capacity will be allocated to charter operators, and the balance of seats will be made available to the public online. «Effectively we will be using the same type of low-fare model as you would see in the UK, for example,» said Field, who worked with British Airways for 33 years and was formerly a director of BA’s CitiExpress. «Cyprus is underserved when it comes to low-fare operators. What we are trying to do is to secure our business through charter operations, and that allows us to allocate the balance of our seats at lower fares to travelers,» he said. The company plans to shut its reservations office by the end of March as it switches to ticketless travel. The staff have been redeployed, Field said. The airline flies two leased Boeing 737-800s, and a third is scheduled for delivery in the spring of 2007. Ajet expects some 250,000 return passengers for the first year of operation, increasing to around 500,000 by 2008.