Emotions Run High as Fare Hikes Threaten Aleppo’s Armenian Community
With the Syrian crisis escalating dramatically in recent months and with battles having been waged in the major cities, there has been an influx of Syrian Armenians seeking refuge in Armenia. Aleppo especially, which has a major Armenian population and is particularly significant to the Armenian diaspora, has seen fierce fighting in recent days.
However there have been allegations that Armavia, the largest Armenian airline company, has significantly raised ticket prices to travel from Aleppo to the Armenian capital of Yerevan making it more difficult, or even impossible, for some Syrian Armenians to flee the conflict. It is also being said that most tickets are sold out until September.
The issue has been wildly speculative amongst Armenia’s sometimes highly excitable news agencies with differing reports about what has actually occurred.
Armavia has conceded that a small price hike had taken place. In an interview earlier his month with Armenia Now, Armavia’s press secretary, Nana Avetisova, said that the price had been increased to 128,000 drams or US$306 and that the increase was due to “safety issues and Syria’s refusal to provide insurance.”
This was also officially confirmed by Armavia to Ararat Magazine in a statement provided to us over Facebook. In it, the company seemed to suggest that the price hike was due to a lack of government support. The statement — which has been edited for clarity — read as follows:
“Armavia” Air Company confirms that we have increased the prices since the flight resumed, but everything has its explanation. First of all, during such situations as it is in Aleppo now (war etc.) the government must cover some part of expences to help Armenians get home easily. But, “Armavia” doesn’t have any help from any side and is operating the flight alone. Beside the prime cost of the flight became more expensive [and this is] what provoked high prices.
Follow up questions were sent to Armavia as to what help they were referring to in terms of the manner of help they required but a response was not received at time of publication.
It must also be noted that some mainstream Armenian press outlets like Public Radio of Armenia have reported that Armavia is now willing to operate two flights and that tickets will be “almost free” according to one story. However at time of writing, this could not be independently verified, and the news reports do not cite any source for their claim.
Again, Ararat Magazine did contact Armavia for an official confirmation of this but there has been no response.
As Ararat Magazine discovered, as of July 24, economy class tickets could not be purchased from the Armavia website until September 3 and the total price with taxes came to USD$456.20. There were some business class tickets available throughout August, however with taxes the price went as high as USD$557.20. To put this into context, the average monthly salary in Syria in 2010 was $USD242 and the official unemployment rate in 2011 was 12.3%
Also, as of July 27, tickets were still available for purchase from some travel agencies. Levon Travel Agency in Los Angeles was still selling tickets for Armavia flights with prices ranging from USD$295.77 to $501.73 but stressed that the rates are subject to change. However they also said that tickets from Aleppo to Yerevan were unavailable on Syrian Air until the end of September according to their information from their Yerevan office.
Ararat Magazine has also made contact with a Syrian Armenian currently living in Aleppo who preferred to remain anonymous. This source stated that tickets to Armenia could only be purchased for 32,000 Syrian pounds or around USD$500 and that the tickets were non-refundable and more expensive than a flight with Syrian Air.
Criticism has also been widespread on social media site Facebook. One particular Facebook group called the “Syrian-Armenian support group,” which currently has 333 members, has even launched an event titled “Shame Campaign, a demand to review Yerevan-Aleppo-Yerevan flight ticket value” which involved a protest on July 25 outside of Armavia’s central office in Yerevan.
One person on Facebook went so far as to boycott Armavia stating:
“SHAME on Armavia for doubling the price of Halep [Aleppo]-Yerevan flights in this time of crisis … I for one am not going to use Armavia … Better take Turkish Airlines, for example, who is cheaper and doesn’t change or cancel flights on a whim.”
Another person alleged that a return ticket to Aleppo was selling for $800 and that they were non-refundable meaning that passengers would lose their money if flights were cancelled due to the fighting.
Services only resumed earlier this month after they were suspended in March of this year due to the increased fighting in Syria. This was after His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, appealed to the company to resume the flights.
The BBC has reported that not only has there been an influx of Syrian Armenians fleeing to Armenia but that some have staged protests outside the Armenian Parliament complaining of a lack of support from the government, especially with housing and employment. Many other Syrian Armenians are fleeing to neighboring Lebanon.
Syria has a significant Armenian community with population estimates ranging from 80,000 to 150,000 with many living in Aleppo. The country’s Armenian population have also suffered some casualties with four deaths in the community as well as significant damage to an Armenian Church and school in the city of Homs which was sacked by the Syrian opposition forces in May.