Union: Olympic can survive after payback of aid

Greece’s loss-making Olympic Airlines can survive and grow even if it ends up paying back hundreds of millions of euros of illegally received state aid, its main labor union’s president said yesterday. Manolis Patestos, head of the airline’s powerful OSPA union, said in an interview the carrier can come up with the money if it wins its own court battle against the state. «Even if the aid money is paid back, Olympic has now sued the Greek state for services which have not been paid (for) for years,» he said. «Once there is a final ruling on this in Greek courts (this year), Olympic could end up receiving multiple times the amount of the money it will have to pay back.» The European Union executive body has taken Greece to court for failing to recover as much as 540 million euros ($680 million) in state aid from Olympic, which threatens the future of the indebted carrier. At stake is not just the vital connection Olympic provides to scores of remote islands but the fate of government plans to privatize Athens International Airport – part-owned by German builder Hotchtief «HOTG.DE» – and list it on the Athens bourse. Olympic accounts for about 34 percent of the airport’s passenger traffic and contributes 28 percent of its revenues. The European Commission recently criticized Greece for doing little to recover the aid and unpaid taxes from Olympic Airways and its successor, Olympic Airlines. Greece now risks a fine for the delay. Brussels is expected to rule on this in the coming weeks or months. Olympic’s woes are closely watched by competitors, eager to open up room in a crowded European aviation sector. Repeated efforts to privatize the airline, founded by tycoon Aristotle Onassis, have failed in the past. The government, still looking for a buyer, has said the airline cannot continue operating in its present form. «We are trying to solve this difficult and complex problem,» Transport Minister Michalis Liapis said last month. «It demands time and very careful legal actions. We are in a good, stable collaboration with Brussels on this.» Olympic, in the red since its relaunch three years ago, made a net loss of 23 million euros in 2003. But Patestos insisted Olympic was on a course to recovery. «The country needs this company, which has the potential to grow,» he said. (Reuters)

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