Ski tourists angered as Balkan flight cancelled due to safety fear


Almost 160 holiday-makers including school students from Co Waterford and a Co Monaghan GAA team returned home from Belfast International Airport yesterday after the flight due to take them to a Bulgarian skiing resort was cancelled over safety fears.

The flight to Plovdir booked through Balkan Tours was refused permission to leave by airport officials when the crew of the chartered Armenian Airlines aircraft failed to produce legal and safety documentation.

The passengers, up to half of whom were from the Republic, were told when they checked in on Sunday morning that the flight had been delayed until 8 p.m. Shortly after 2 a.m. yesterday, they were informed that permission would not be granted for the aircraft to depart with fare-paying passengers aboard.

The same aircraft, a Tupolev TUI54B, was involved in an incident at the airport on St Stephen's Day when 30 passengers refused to fly on it claiming it was not safe.

The airport's managing director, Mr Paul Kehoe, said the situation was regrettable but insisted it was up to the tour operator to ensure the safety of the chartered aircraft after they were told of passenger complaints last week. He said the first opportunity the airport had to act was when the aircraft entered its jurisdiction and could be inspected.

"It may sound bureaucratic but paperwork can save people's lives. The documents were never given to me so I could not advise those people to get on that plane," said Mr Kehoe.

The aircraft took off at about 1.20 p.m. yesterday with only its crew aboard, leaving the passengers to return home almost 24 hours after they were scheduled to fly out.

"We are very annoyed," said Mr Brendan Lillis of the Monaghan Masters GAA team, for whom the trip was a reward for winning the over-40s All-Ireland championship. "How could they use this plane again after 30 people walked off it last week?" he asked.

Mr Ray Scott, one of six teachers travelling with 31 students from the Star of the Sea and CBS schools in Tramore, Co Waterford, said they had been in contact with Balkan Tours after last week's incident and were told everything had been resolved.

"The kids have been saving for a year and have taken summer jobs to pay for this trip. They are absolutely devastated."

He added the Balkan Tours staff had been "very unhelpful. All they've done is quote to us from the insurance form that we can claim for the holiday and that claims for added expenses will only be considered."

Ms Julie O'Hare, from Cam lough, Co Armagh, said she was angered at the manner in which the passengers had been told that the flight had been cancelled by the director of Balkans Tours, Mr Michael Lynne, and by Mr Kehoe of Belfast International Airport.

"They came into the terminal surrounded by eight airport police officers. They obviously expected battle from a lethargic crowd that just wanted to go on their holidays."

Mr Joe Fee, from Inniskeen, Co Monaghan, said airport officials had advised passengers that the oxygen safety system on the aircraft was unsatisfactory and the airline did not have the necessary clearance documents.

"But many of us have the impression that this plane was never going to fly out," he said.

Mr Paul McGuigan from Draperstown, Co Derry, said he was dissatisfied with two previous flights he had booked through Balkan Tours. "I decided to give them another chance but I've been kicked in the teeth."

Mr Paddy Byrne, from Dublin, one of the 30 people who refused to travel on the aircraft on St Stephen's Day, said the airport management should not have allowed it to take off then. "The first thing that hit us when we got on board was a horrible smell of aviation fuel. Then we discovered there were no overhead luggage compartments, only a shelf. There were also no oxygen masks and one person who picked up their life-jacket found the clips were missing. The reading lights were broken and there were no safety leaflets," he said yesterday.

"Basic safety features you'd expect in 1999 were not present. The captain said it was a new plane but someone with us who knew about planes said it was a minimum of 40 years old."

No one from Balkan Tours was available for comment yesterday.