Cyprus probes whether Helios merited license

NICOSIA – Cyprus is examining whether an airline whose plane crashed last week with the loss of all 121 people on board should have been granted an operating permit, a minister was quoted as saying Sunday. The state probe comes after press reports that the international body which oversees air transport opposed a move by the previous Cypriot government to hand a license to Helios Airways when it was established in May 1999. «Now we are examining under which circumstances the permit was granted and we are examining also whether the ICAO was against granting the license and why that might be,» Communications Minister Haris Thrassou told the English language newspaper Sunday Mail. The Phileleftheros newspaper said it had evidence that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was opposed to a private airline operating in Cyprus because local civil aviation authorities would not be able to cope. Moreover, the ICAO had «doubts» about Helios – the island’s first private carrier – and the legislation in place to monitor such a carrier, Phileleftheros said. Thrassou said the Montreal-based ICAO would be contacted today to check whether the allegations were true. «We also have to establish why they (the previous administration) decided not to take into consideration the views of the ICAO, if there was such advice given,» Thrasou said, adding that Helios’s bid for a license was rejected the first time it applied in December 1998 because the company did not have all the proper documentation. It was accepted when the firm came up with a new business plan four months later. Mystery still clouds what actually happened on Flight UZ522 from Larnaca to Prague via Athens, which slammed into a mountainside northeast of Athens on August 14. Greek investigators have established that the Boeing 737’s German pilot had signalled a fault with the air-conditioning system in the plane’s electronics compartment to his company shortly after take-off from Larnaca. But they have yet to determine what appears to have knocked out both the pilots and their communications systems. Cypriot socialist party EDEK leader Yiannakis Omirou told reporters yesterday that the circumstances surrounding the crash pointed to a «premeditated crime» and called for an independent criminal inquiry. A Cypriot police investigation is being carried out against Helios to ascertain if the company was negligent in any way. The crash was the worst aviation disaster to befall Cyprus or Greece – those killed were almost all nationals of the close-knit island, excluding 12 Greek nationals and the German pilot, Hans Juergen Mertens, 58. Helios has continued to fly but says its remaining Boeing 737s will undergo «complete mechanical checks» in Sweden to «reassure the public.» The first of its two Boeing 737-800s was due in Sweden yesterday. Once the first plane has undergone a full check, the second aircraft will be flown out. The checks are earmarked to be completed by Wednesday and Helios schedules are expected to be disrupted until then.