Dismal hopes for Olympic

Transport and Communications Minister Costis Hatzidakis on Saturday found himself in the the unpleasant position of having to assure all parties concerned that virtually no one will be adversely affected by the closure of Olympic Airlines, now considered probable. «No company employees will lose their job and taxpayers will stop seeing their money going to waste… Passengers will not lose their right of choice… Island connections will not be affected and the solution that will be found will avert a monopoly situation in air transport,» he told reporters after Friday’s meeting in Brussels with European Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot, where hopes to rescue the long-ailing national carrier in its present form were severely curtailed. A lawsuit by Irish budget airline Ryanair against the Commission for failing to make Olympic pay back huge sums of state aid ruled to be unlawful appeared to signal the end for the company founded by Aristotle Onassis 50 years ago. «Ryanair’s lawsuit… and the demand to open up dossiers on ‘new illegal state subsidies’ are worsening the situation for Olympic,» said Hatzidakis. The European Commission first ruled in 1996 that Greece was in breach of EU state aid rules and would have to retrieve hundreds of millions of euros in unlawful subsidies. In 2003, the airline was split into two units, in the hope of overcoming EU objections and facilitating the company’s privatization: a debt-heavy services company and a debt-free carrier. But the Commission was not impressed. It said that the split changed nothing and that the state would still have to retrieve the unlawful subsidies. Instead, the government paid the carrier -563 million for unpaid past services, as ordered by the Council of State a year ago. Hatzidakis said he wanted to talk with OA employees again and proposed a joint visit to Brussels so that they, too, would realize «the difficulties inherited.» «We must rid ourselves of this problem that has been dogging us for years. We want a healthy scheme. We want the Olympic rings (company trade mark) to keep flying,» he said. In an interview with NET TV channel, Hatzidakis said Olympic’s debts amounted to -2.2 billion. Sabena model Brussels is strongly in favor of the so-called «Sabena» model, according to which the Belgian airline had been shut and reopened on a much smaller scale in 20 days. A similar scheme with Olympic would mean a much smaller private concern that the Commission wants confined to domestic flights. Sources said, however, that Hatzidakis told Brussels that Greek islands could not be left without air links, or with a monopoly situation, for any period of time and the change would have to take place immediately.