Olympic's privatisation again in doubt as new Athens hub opens

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Gus Vlassis/ATHENS

Olympic Airways' new Athens Spata hub has opened - but the Greek flag-carrier's privatisation plan is once again in jeopardy, with likely investors requesting an extension to the 20 April deadline for bids after complaining of a lack of transparency in the due diligence process.

Cyprus Airways, Axon Airlines, shipping group Restis and Australian venture capital fund Integrated Airline Solutions say Olympic has failed to make available data including balance sheets for last year and 1999, plus its 2001 business plan, with some threatening to withdraw from the process.

The potential bidders also insist that Olympic's workforce is cut to 5,000, with operations also pared back. The airline has already cut services back to 6,000 flying hours, dropping routes to Budapest and Benghazi and cutting frequencies to Frankfurt, Milan, Rome, Geneva, Zurich and Vienna.

A stake in Olympic of between 51% and 65% is being offered after the collapse last year of plans to sell 20% to British Airways.

Spata airport, east of Athens and known officially as Eleftherios Venizelos after a former Greek prime minister, was inaugurated on 27 March, nearly four weeks later than planned, opening for business the next day.

Its first passenger-carrying arrival was an Olympic Airbus A340 from Toronto, which landed at 15:01h local time, while the last take-off from the old Hellinikon airport was a Thessaloniki-bound Olympic Boeing 737, leaving at 16:30h. Delays in completing Spata mean Olympic's engineering unit will remain at Hellinikon until December.

Fees at Spata are the fourth-highest in the European Union. Handling charges will be a lot higher than at Hellinikon, causing some Greek carriers to predict a 30% hike in air fares (and a consequent 40-45% fall in passenger numbers) on top of a preliminary 10-15% fare hike based on a direct levy to pay for the airport, built by operator Hochtieff at a cost of Dr-650 billion ($1.7 billion).

Spata has parallel runways able to handle 65 movements per hour, but initially limited to 50 due to a lack of controllers. Some 13 million passengers should be handled in its first year, rising to 20 million in 10 years.

South Korea's new Incheon International airport opened for business on 29 March. The airport, built at a cost of $5 billion, will initially be able to handle 27 million passengers and 1.7 million tonnes of cargo annually. Some 50km west of the capital Seoul, the airport will handle international traffic while the older Gimpo airport it replaces is to remain open for domestic traffic.