By Stefanos Evripidou
CONFUSION reigned yesterday as to whether Turkish football team Trabzonspor flew to Larnaca Airport on Wednesday directly, which would make it the first direct flight from Turkey since 1974, or not.
Trabzonspor flew to Cyprus on Wednesday to play Apollon Limassol at the GSP Stadium in Nicosia last night. This is their third trip to Cyprus, having previously played Anorthosis and APOEL in past seasons.
The team were originally meant to fly from the northeast Turkish city of Trabzon to the Greek island of Rhodes and from there on to Larnaca.
However, Turkish and Turkish Cypriot press reports yesterday widely reported that the flight changed course in air and flew directly to Larnaca, breaking the direct flight ban for the first time in 39 years. The reports included quotes from Turkish foreign ministry officials and the Turkish Cypriot ‘foreign minister’ Ozdil Nami on the so-called direct flight.
In stark contrast to the reports, the operations centre at Larnaca airport had a different story to tell, contradicting press reports that Rhodes was bypassed.
Hermes Airports spokesman Adamos Aspris said yesterday: “According to the data of the Larnaca airport operations centre, the flight AZI 743 arrived (on Wednesday) at 12:43pm at Larnaca airport from Rhodes international airport, and not from any other airport.”
The Cyprus Mail also learnt that information acquired from Eurocontrol, a European organisation dealing with air navigation safety, shows that the plane in question landed at Rhodes airport.
This does not rule out the possibility that the plane flew directly to Cyprus, possibly flying towards Greek airspace and from there on to the Nicosia Flight Information Region, without actually landing in Rhodes. It was not clear yesterday whether such a step would be a violation of civil aviation rules or just Turkey’s self-imposed ban.
The Turkish government does not permit direct flights between Turkey and the government-controlled areas of Cyprus. At the same time, the Cypriot government does not afford freedom of movement across the buffer zone for Turkish nationals, meaning that Turkish sports teams cannot fly to the occupied north and cross freely to the south.
Instead, they have to go the long way round, usually transiting in Greece before arriving at Larnaca or Paphos. Cypriot sports teams playing against Turkish teams do the same when travelling to Turkey since Turkey does not allow direct flights from Paphos or Larnaca to Turkey. For reasons of political sensitivity, Cypriot teams exclude the option of travelling via the north, even if it cuts travel time by hours.
According to Dogan News Agency, the plane carrying the Trabzonspor squad is owned by a Greek company which was tasked with flying the team to Larnaca via Rhodes.
The plane took off from Trabzon at 9.30am on Wednesday, and reportedly in mid-air, the pilot announced that the route had been changed so they would be flying directly to Larnaca.
Their arrival time at Larnaca airport is recorded at 12.43pm, a little over three hours after departure.
The direct air route from Trabzon to Rhodes is 1,137km, and from the Greek island to Cyprus a further 528km, which brings total distance that needs to be travelled to 1,665km.
The direct air route from Trabzon to Larnaca is approximately 870km, almost half the distance of the longer route.
Turkish Cypriot press covering the event said the change of plan was an initiative of the Turkish foreign ministry, suggesting a possible thaw in relations between Turkey and the Cyprus Republic ahead of the start of peace talks next month.
However, Dogan News Agency reported a Turkish foreign ministry spokesman saying the decision to fly direct and skip Rhodes was the pilot’s decision, not the ministry’s.
The Turkish government has not given any plane flying from Turkey a permit to land directly in the government-controlled areas of Cyprus since 1974.
He added that the latest incident did not indicate in any way a change in Turkey’s policy regarding direct flights to Cyprus, and would not change the current situation.
Turkish Cypriot daily Yeni Duzen reported yesterday that Nami contacted the Turkish foreign ministry as soon as he heard of the issue and was told the same thing, that the pilot had decided in air to change direction.
The Cyprus Republic has long called for Turkey to meet its legal obligations and implement a customs union with the EU, which includes opening its ports and airports to vessels and aircraft from all 28 EU member states.