National carrier Slovenské Aerolínie has been grounded by the Transport Ministry, which claims the airline did not submit a request for license renewal in time for the December 31 deadline.
Although the Transport Ministry is not acting out of spite, one state official claimed, Slovenské Aerolínie (SA) is in some ways being punished for defying the ministry last year. SA, the official said, continued to fly its routes without permission after its license was revoked in November 1998.
"We are not the ones who have taken this case to the boil - the whole administrative mess in the case is due to [Slovenské Aerolínie's] arrogance," said Andrej Žiarovský, general director of the Civil Aviation Administration at the Transport Ministry. Žiarovský told The Slovak Spectator on March 10 that if the company had had contractual obligations to fulfill after their license was revoked in November, they could have requested an extension, which the ministry would have granted on a temporary basis.
Carrying on regardless
Žiarovský said that the ministry had been infuriated by SA's decision to continue flying and to ignore the ministry's suspension of the firm's license.
According to Slovakia's Law on Aviation, each airline carrier must re-apply for an operating license by the last day of each year.
Žiarovský explained that "Slovenské Aerolínie did not meet all criteria required by the law on time, and therefore I could not give them a license." But despite the fact that SA had been denied a new license, he continued, the firm made several business flights between January 1 and 15 on its Bratislava to Moscow and Poprad to Moscow routes.
In retaliation, the Ministry stripped SA of its aircraft operator certificate in January, ascribing the move to the firm's "unclear ownership structure" and the fact that it had been operating without a valid license since the beginning of 1999. The Ministry also confiscated the three aircraft SA had rented from the state on January 15.
In addition, the Aviation Office, the state executive authority which supervises civil aviation, started legal proceedings against SA, claiming the company had repeatedly violated the law by flying without a license.
But Slovenské Aerolínie's General Director Pavol Mladý, when contacted by The Slovak Spectator, told an entirely different story. Mladý claimed that his firm had asked for the license renewal as early as December 1, 1998. "The proceedings on granting licenses has still not been concluded, and some of the terms in the procedures stipulated by the law have not been met [by the Ministry]," Mladý said.
Mladý also accused the ministry of breaking its contract for the rental of Slovenské Aerolínie's three planes by unilaterally withdrawing from the pact in a January 28 letter from Transport Minister Gabriel Palacka.
"The withdrawal contravenes the rental contract and we [Slovenské Aerolínie] will appeal to the court," he said.
Žiarovský responded, however, that the ministry had only broken its contract with SA after assessing the deal and finding it to be in violation of the law on the use of state property.
The law says that any company which is allowed to use state property must begin paying for it immediately, something that SA has failed to do so far. The rental contract signed in June 1998 between SA and the state under the government of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, Žiarovský said, violated the law "because it contained a provision allowing rental payments to be delayed for three years, so the contracts were about lending and not renting the aircraft."
Having confiscated SA's aircraft, however, the ministry abruptly returned the planes on March 4. On that day, Palacka formed a special commission of air industry authorities and state officials to assess the condition of the three aircraft and take measures to renovate them. Slovenské Aerolínie was given the contract to conduct the renovations and prepare the planes for operation.
SA representatives were also appointed to the commission, along with ministry officials and representatives from the state Aviation Office and the Russian company Aviakor, the producer of the Tupolev airplanes in question.
The commission was established nearly seven weeks after the January 15 confiscation of the aircrafts from Slovenské Aerolínie. A ministry official close to the SA case said that the reason for the delay, and indeed the reason the ministry had returned the planes at all, was that state officials feared that a court case might drag out over several years, during which time the aircraft could not be used by either side.
According to Mladý, the commission estimated that the planes had sustained up to 3-4 million Slovak crowns ($80,000-$110,000) in damages due to unperformed routine maintenance between January 15 and March 4.
"These estimates do not cover the indirect losses suffered by Slovenské Aerolínie," Mladý said. He explained that the company had already signed contracts with numerous travel agencies for the summer season's charter flights, which generate up to 90% of Slovenské Aerolínie's revenues.
"In the worst case scenario, our losses could hit 500 million crowns," added Mladý.
It does not appear that SA will get satisfaction from the ministry, however. Palacka announced a tender on the rental of the aircraft on March 2, the results of which should be announced on March 23, the date on which a new lessee could begin operating the planes.
Unbowed, Mladý declared that Slovenské Aerolínie would participate in the tender, claiming that the company would prepare hard to offer the best terms to the ministry.