U.S. Virgin Islands Airline Says French Ban On its Flights Unjustified

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands (AP) -- A U.S. Virgin Islands airline banned from landing on French soil for safety reasons protested the decision Tuesday, calling it unjustified.

Air St. Thomas was among six carriers on a blacklist released by the French civil aviation authority Sunday in an attempt to allay public fears about flying after a recent series of deadly crashes. Although all the airlines had been banned in recent years, France had never before made a blacklist public.

Air St. Thomas started charter flights to the French Caribbean island of St. Barts in 1970. It has been banned from landing there since March 2004, said Air St. Thomas owner Paul Wikander.

After a year of losses, the airline is closing next month, Wikander said. Most of its flights had been to St. Barts, he said.

Wikander insisted his airline has a solid safety record, claiming the local government on St. Barts has resisted allowing U.S. competition for French Caribbean airliners.

''I'm really proud of our safety record,'' Wikander said. ''To be treated like leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.''

Attempts to reach officials in St. Barts for comment were unsuccessful.

The French aviation authority did not detail why each company had been blacklisted.

U.S. Federal Aviation Authority records show St. Thomas Air had 18 instances of safety trouble between 1980 and 2003.

In the most serious incident, a plane went missing in July 1981. Part of the wing was later recovered in the ocean, but the pilot was never found. No one else was on board.

A plane crashed into the water in 1996 when the control stick stuck, forcing the pilot to abort takeoff from the St. Barts airport. No one was injured.

In 1993, a plane struck a parked aircraft while trying to maneuver to the gate at the Charlotte Amalie Airport in the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas. The pilot was fired.

Belgian authorities also released a blacklist of airlines Sunday, while Swiss civil aviation officials said they planned to release a similar list Thursday.

Proposals for a European blacklist are working their way through lawmaking institutions.

The French and Belgian measures followed a series of five aviation accidents in the past few months, including one involving a Colombian-registered charter that crashed in Venezuela, killing 160, almost all of them French citizens from the Caribbean island of Martinique.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press

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