By Adrian Akers-Douglas
So – Cyprus Airways has finally fallen, to the delight of many but to the great regret of some others. While the ‘bar-room bores’ whose self-opinionated rants celebrate the comeuppance of the ‘greedy’ pilots and ‘intransigent’ unions, a handful of us will mourn the passing of a considerable airline. To have flown for almost seven decades in our volatile region, with the only fatalities having been caused by a bomb carelessly carried on board by a terrorist/freedom-fighter (delete as appropriate), was no mean achievement. If the airline had been free of the cynical manipulations of politicians from all parties, who knows what it might have achieved?
I admit an interest: I flew for Cyprus Airways for three decades, in good times and in bad. My service, for the ‘informed’, was unrewarded on retirement by free or discounted tickets or any of the other perks much trumpeted by those of envious imagination. Although I have now long moved on, I am proud of what we achieved, often in adverse circumstances.
Before and after each election, Cyprus Airways became a ‘goodies bag’ for the political parties: almost every vacuous politician on the island, but especially the leaders, sought to curry favour with their electorate through the unnecessary hiring of party loyalists. Immediately after the election, Cyprus Airways would be loaded with those who, incapable of any useful service to the State but deserving of reward for their influence were packed into the boardroom. Aviation was no place for them to bask. The exceptions were few.
I joined Cyprus Airways in 1973. A year later, I flew one of the last flights to land at Nicosia Airport. We could see the incoming invasion fleet on our radar, but no-one listened to our warnings. In the aftermath of the Turkish occupation, the airline staff remained resolutely loyal and, in large measure through our initiative, the result was that Cyprus was reconnected to the wider world within a few months. The conditions were difficult, but we just got on with it: we pulled together for the good of Cyprus. Are we sure that the same would be the case in the future if we have to rely on low-cost carriers?
As Cyprus Airways staff, we remained on much-reduced pay well after the island’s economic revival began. We were almost continuously on courses, learning to fly the larger and larger aeroplanes that the lengthening runway at Larnaca could support. This was the heyday of Middle Eastern terrorism. When we were hijacked, our (sometimes volunteer) crews were threatened and placed in imminent and acute danger. We had enough sense of humour to laugh when terrorists got stuck trying to bring Soviet Rocket-Propelled Grenade launchers (RPGs) through the aircraft door. I was present in the Operations building at Larnaca when one of our staff was killed and my captain hit during a wild shoot-out.
In one of the few breaks with rousfeti, an expatriate CEO was brought in, an experienced executive who inspired extraordinary support when he voiced his vision: we should become a ‘hub-and-spoke’ operation for which Cyprus was ideally geographically and geo-politically suited. We would link Tokyo with New York, Stockholm with Johannesburg, all through Larnaca Airport. We would have a Business Class which would be the envy of other airlines’ First Class; we would set up a separate, low-cost airline for the ‘cheapos’: the inclusive tourists. For two hours in the Laiki Sporting Club he justified his argument before the Cyprus Airways pilots, fluently and without notes. We were open-jawed at his vision and cheered him to the echo.
“No,” said the Board, “we fly to Athens and London.” Our visionary CEO was soon dismissed. A couple of years later an airline set up shop in Dubai, following our CEO’s blueprint almost to the letter. It is called Emirates; you may have heard of them.
Back on the island, the political interference continued unabated. I had now joined Eurocypria, the charter airline set up to compete with any incoming low-cost carriers. easyJet was run by a dynamic young Cypriot entrepreneur; we were directed by a retired civil servant, loyal to the party in power. Staff enthusiasm, which was in rich supply, cannot proceed through a bog of lethargy. Despite the cautionary advice of my Chief Pilot, I was unwise enough to accept responsibility – together with a colleague – for hiring some new pilots. Despite the forewarning, I was unprepared for what occurred. We conducted a selection process founded solely on meritocracy: we simply wanted the best available pilots. It was the first (and maybe the only) time when the unions did not insist on overseeing the process: they trusted our impartiality. We produced two, hand-written lists of the order of merit. We retained one: the other we gave to the Managing Director. Within hours, the telephone calls began: first from the leader of a right-wing party, informing us that it was ‘unacceptable’ that three of our top four candidates were apparently from the left of the political spectrum (a consideration that had not featured in the selection process: we felt that handling skills and personality were more important); next, from the Archbishopric, then under a former tenant, assuring is that a candidate below the acceptance level was a ‘good Christian’ and should therefore be chosen. We declined both interventions, but – things being what they were and still are in Cyprus – we were overruled. My colleague and I were replaced by more ‘politically reliable’ choices. It was of no comfort that some of those selected for their political affiliations rather than their ability did not subsequently prosper; that is an indication of the integrity of the two airlines’ training departments.
So, in my perhaps coloured opinion, it is truly sad that several hundred people are now without jobs and in some cases even perhaps without prospects, mostly due to political venality and corruption. If Cyprus is entering 2015 with a new determination to root out the malignancy which has affected the island for so many years, let us be grateful. I am sorry that Cyprus Airways won’t be with us to see this new dawn.