NEWS

Cyprus planes ‘unchecked’

NICOSIA – The Cypriot civil aviation authority failed to carry out mandatory airworthiness checks on Cypriot-registered aircraft for 10 months, a senior manager charged yesterday, in a new blow to public trust in air safety. The accusation, coming less than two weeks after a Cypriot airliner crashed outside Athens with the loss of all 121 people on board, sparked a furor with one leading politician demanding «drastic» action to restore faith in the island’s aviation industry. Air transport licensing chief Charalambos Hadjigeorgiou made his allegations in an interview with public radio and said he was speaking out at the risk of losing his job because of his concern after the August 14 crash. «It was said that all the checks were conducted as they should have been. Well I’m here to confirm that for the past 10 months no such flight checks were carried out,» Hadjigeorgiou said. «What this means in relation to the accident is up to the Greek investigators.» Hadjigeorgiou said the civil aviation authority had failed to carry out the checks despite billing the airlines for the costs of doing so. Helios Airways, the island’s sole private carrier which operated the Boeing 737 involved in the Greece crash, paid 64,800 Cypus pounds ($138,000 or about 112,000 euros) for the checks valid from April 1, 2004 through March 31, 2005. State-owned flag carrier Cyprus Airways had paid 90,900 Cyprus pounds ($193,600 or about 157,000 euros) for the checks and its charter arm, Eurocypria, 49,800 Cyprus pounds ($106,000 or about 86,000 euros). «Why this didn’t happen, you will have to ask the (communications) ministry and civil aviation for the answer.» Hadjigeorgiou criticized the civil aviation authority for lacking «vision and planning» and said rank-and-file staff should not be «victimized» for what happened to the Helios airliner outside Athens on August 14. He said anybody who spoke out about what went on inside the authority risked losing their job because of a confidentiality clause in their contract. He charged that the authority was chronically understaffed and «plucked contract staff out of the corridors to temporarily plug holes.» He criticized successive Cypriot governments for «hoodwinking» European experts over the authority’s shortcomings. «I consider it an insult that after a long but failed struggle to upgrade the civil aviation department that we hear disinformation and blame coming from official lips,» he said. Hadjigeorgiou’s comments sparked a political storm with many MPs demanding an independent investigation into how civil aviation was being managed. «This is a shock and after these comments I expect drastic decisions to be taken concerning civil aviation and personnel responsible for flight checks and administrative action,» said Yiannakis Omirou, leader of the socialist EDEK party, a junior partner in the governing coalition. The head of the Greek crash investigation team, Akrivos Tsolakis, is expected in Cyprus next Monday to interview Cypriot officials and airline staff over the Helios disaster. Two EU experts are on the island to assist with the Cypriot end of investigations at the request of the Cyprus government. Government officials said they were looking into a report by French newspaper Le Monde which suggested that Cyprus was one of 30 countries on an international civil aviation blacklist for not meeting required safety standards. A Cypriot police investigation is being carried out into Helios to ascertain if the airline was negligent in any way for what happened to the doomed flight.