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By Rukhshona Ibragimova
DUSHANBE –State airline Tajik Air is pleading poverty, saying it can’t afford fuel, airport services or navigators.
July 7 underscored the airline’s plight in deregulated times.
On that day, all Tajik Air flights from Dushanbe, Khudzhand, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Bishkek and Sharjah were delayed. A thousand would-be passengers were stranded with their luggage for almost 24 hours.
“We had to wait almost an entire day without explanation to fly from Dushanbe to Khudzhand,” passenger Umedhon Huseinov said. “Around evening, a rumour circulated among the passengers that Tajik Air had gone bankrupt.”
The following day, Tajik Air management said the planes were not fuelled because the carrier owed money to Toplivno-Zapravochnaya Kompaniya (TZK), which supplies fuel to Tajik corporations.
“We are not hiding that we have a debt with (TZK). We are repaying the debt. … According to the agreement, the planes should have been fuelled on time,” Tajik Air spokeswoman Lola Kenjayeva said.
Tajik Air has hit turbulance since restructuring
Tajik Air separated from TZK, Dushanbe International Airport and Tajikaeronavigatsia (Tajik Air Navigation) after a restructuring in 2008. The aviation sector was deregulated in 2006.
“Companies that were just recently part of Tajik Air – (TZK) and Dushanbe International Airport – are deliberately undermining the airline’s image,” she charged.
Airport staff told passengers to buy tickets from other airlines, Kenjayeva added.
TZK denied trying to sabotage Tajik Air.
“This has nothing to do with undermining its reputation. The airline was warned in advance that should it fail to repay the debt, which totalled 15m TJS (US $3.4m) on July 1, its planes would not be refuelled,” said TZK CEO Muhabbatsho Abdulhayev. “We work with 20 airlines, and we don’t have problems with any of them except Tajik Air.”
TZK chief financial officer Gulnora Hanifayeva is at a loss: “The state airline says it has no money in its account,” she said. “How can there be no money if the planes are flying and tickets are being sold?”
“When we get a bill, we make our payments on time,” Tajik Air Vice Financial Director Kudratullo Kurbanov said.
Tajik Air’s problems are linked to its 2008 restructuring, Tajik Air CEO Alimurod Mahmadaliyev said. “All the state airlines in all the CIS countries went bankrupt after they were split up,” he recalled. “But Tajik Air is still holding on.”
On July 22, Tajik Air owed 44m TJS (US $10m) to its former components.
The airline presently owes 25m TJS (US $5.6m) for airport services, Dushanbe International Airport General Director Rustam Holikov said.
“The airline (cites) economic problems and promises to pay off its debt,” he said. “But we inherited debts too, totalling 10m TJS (US $2.3m) after the restructuring, and we paid them off.”
Tajik Air is the only airline indebted to the airport, he continued. “We never stopped serving the airline’s passengers because of debts. Beginning August 1, Tajik Air will have a 50% discount on all airport service charges. We are doing this so it can get back on its feet,” Holikov said.
Tajikaeronavigatsia Director Anvar Maksudov reported that Tajik Air owes his firm 6.5m TJS (US $1.5m). It has no such problems with any other airline, he said.
At the time this article was written, the airline’s debt to TZK had reached 13m TJS (US $3m) after a brief reduction.
Tajik Air customers criticise service
Many passengers have criticised Tajik Air service.
“After Tajik Air’s restructuring, the quality of service dropped by half,” passenger Alisher Rahmatkulov said. “Service on board is horrible. You also have problems if your baggage is delayed or damaged.”
“The quality does suffer, but this is all tied to the staff,” Abdulhayev said. “We bill it, the airline supposedly sends us the money … but the money does not reach us. … It cannot simply disappear.” An insider took a dark view of the origins of Tajik Air’s problems.
“The state airline is being led to bankruptcy from within,” a Tajik Air employee who requested anonymity said. “Everything is being done so the company can be declared bankrupt and auctioned for pocket change. … And the companies that were once part of Tajik Air charge us prices several times higher than those for the private airline Somon Air.”
Somon Air’s management refused to comment on the statement from the Tajik Air employee. However, as one observer pointed out, Tajik Air never opens its books. Its online statement about the first half of 2010 cites only various expenses, not income.
“If Tajik Air is sure there is an intentional effort to bankrupt it, then it needs to provide facts (through an audit),” said political analyst Parviz Mullojanov. “Then we can actually say there is an intentional desire to ruin it or force it out.”
Tajik Air cannot function in a competitive environment, Mullojanov said.
He suggested a possible merger of Tajik Air with Somon Air early next year.
“Of course, Somon Air has better service: it has a better-equipped fleet,” independent economist Karim Pulatov said. “But as long as Tajik Air … is around, the private airline cannot serve the state carrier’s entire geographic flight area.”