Last victim of turbulent 2009? Another airline bites the dust


MADRID — Spanish airline Air Comet said Tuesday it had suspended all its flights because of financial difficulties that are preventing it from paying its debts, ruining holiday travel plans for thousands of passengers.

The airline, which specialises in flights to Latin America, attributed its problems to a decision Friday by a commercial court in London that enabled Nord Bank of Germany to undertake a foreclosure procedure against the airline.

The company said it had filed for bankruptcy and had requested government permission to dismiss all of its nearly 700 employees.

It has a fleet of 13 planes and carries 1,500 passengers a day on flights from Madrid to Bogota, Buenos Aires, Havana, Lima, Quito and Guayaquil in South America.

Hundreds of stranded passengers were gathered outside the closed ticket office of Air Comet at Madrid’s Barajas airport, one of Europe’s busiest airports.

“Thieves, give us back our money!” chanted several of the affected passengers as they banged metallic objects against the trolleys holding their luggage.

Earlier on Tuesday dozens of passengers blocked the entrance of cars to the airport’s Terminal 1 in protest, one day after hundreds of flights at the airport were cancelled because of poor visibility caused by a snow storm.

Isai Quinteros, a 41-year-old Ecuadorian who works as a chauffeur in Barcelona, said he bought his ticket to Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, back in May to spend the holidays with his wife and three children.

“It is shameful that the government does not do anything,” he said, adding he felt “impotent”.

Development Minister Jose Blanco said alternative travel plans would be arranged for passengers affected.

The government had withdrawn Air Comet’s flying licence to prevent the company’s financial difficulties from becoming “security troubles,” said junior transport minister Concha Gutierrez.

Air Comet, owned by Spanish tourism and transportation company Grupo Marsans, owes 17 million euros (24 million dollars) in lease payments to Nord Bank as well as some 7.0 million euros in back pay to its workers.

At the beginning of the month workers staged partial strikes before the company agreed to cover unpaid wages, which in some case went back eight months.

“I just found out what is going on and it is really bad because they do not tell us anything,” said Elisabeth, a 31-year-old Ecuadorian who lives in Madrid who was booked on a flight to Quito, as she soothed her crying one-year-old.

“There are many people like me with children,” she added.

An Air Comet flight that was to leave Madrid late on Monday for Lima in Peru was the first to be cancelled. Dozens of passengers spent the night at the airport.

“I was supposed to depart for Lima at 8:30 pm yesterday,” said Linda, a 19-year-old student who was trying to head back to her native Peru for the holidays with her father.