x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Iraqi aviation free for take off

After years of war and sanctions, Iraq has a long way to go in building air transport infrastructure and establishing what would be considered standard service in much of the rest of the world. It has made a start.

Iraqi Airways is building up its fleet with billions of dollars worth of planes from Boeing on order after the Second Gulf war in 2004 grounded its operations.
Iraqi Airways is building up its fleet with billions of dollars worth of planes from Boeing on order after the Second Gulf war in 2004 grounded its operations.

The average airport has three security checkpoints. At Baghdad International, there are 11. These precautions are vital as Iraq's aviation sector climbs back after years of war, sanctions and neglect.

It was only seven years ago that a DHL Express cargo aeroplane was struck on one wing by a surface-to-air missile as the jet was climbing away from the airport. Miraculously, the pilots made a successful emergency landing. But in the past four years, Iraq's six international airports have begun welcoming foreign airlines, which have streamed in, first to Erbil in the north and then to other airports.

They have been attracted by handsome profit margins and demand from a steady mix of workers from the military, oil and gas and reconstruction sectors, as Iraq's own carrier, Iraqi Airways, has not been able to meet demand while it slowly rebuilds. These foreign arrivals have been instrumental in stimulating trade and investment, and in unlocking the potential of a country with a population of about 31 million. These Iraqis have also helped to attract foreign airlines as they visit friends and relatives in the Middle East for the first time in years.

"Airlines are once again beginning to appreciate the revenue potential of connecting Baghdad and then secondary cities with major western financial, political and commercial centres from where much of the rebuilding impetus will come," says Doug McVitie, the chief consultant at Arran Aerospace, based in France. From the region, aircraft from Royal Jordanian, Middle East Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Bahrain Air, Gulf Air, Middle East Airlines and the UAE charter operator Eastern Sky Jets jockey for space on the tarmacs with Iraqi Airways, which is building up its fleet with billions of dollars worth of planes from Boeing on order.

It began flying again after the Second Gulf War in 2004 with leased planes, and recently began operating new turboprops from Bombardier. As of January, Iraqi Airways flew regular services to seven Middle East countries including Turkey, according to Innovata, which publishes flight data. In 2006, Austrian Airlines became the first European carrier to resume services to Iraq, launching one to Erbil in the more stable Kurdish north. The airline's parent company, Lufthansa, has now applied to begin services this summer.

"Economic activity in Iraq is picking up at a rapid pace and there is a lot of investment into the country's battered infrastructure," says Christoph Meier, the regional head of corporate communications for Lufthansa. "We expect increasing demand for private travel as the country returns to a post-war society and Iraqi citizens start travelling again." Sabeeh al Shaibany, the minister's adviser for civil aviation and air transportation in Iraq, says safety has been the utmost priority and this focus has begun to pay dividends as foreign airlines increasingly fly to Iraq. Daily flights have more than doubled in the past year, Mr al Shaibany says.

But the threat of flights being caught up in sectarian violence, or terrorism, has not been eliminated. Austrian Airlines halted its flights for 10 months beginning in August 2007 after a "possible incident" involving a Swedish flight at Sulaymaniyah International Airport, a spokesman said. "We never had troubles with our own flights or in Erbil." As the aviation sector recovers, the government is also planning major investments to rehabilitate ageing infrastructure.

In November, the civil aviation authority awarded a contract to ADPI, a French design and engineering firm, to plan a new international airport to be built between the cities of Karbala, Najaf and Babylon, south of Baghdad, to cater for religious pilgrims. The authority is also in negotiations with Boeing, Mr al Shaibany says, to rebuild an Iraqi aviation institute that will develop the nation's next generation of air traffic controllers and aviation technicians. Boeing is already a major element in Iraq's reconstruction efforts, signing a contract in May 2008 with the Iraqi government for 30 Boeing 737 aeroplanes worth US$2.2 billion (Dh8.07bn).

David Hamod, the president and chief executive of the National US-Arab Chamber of Commerce, says even more US firms are more actively seeking Iraq contracts after years of staying on the sidelines. "Iraq wants to put a world-class infrastructure in place, and one hopes that the upcoming elections there will further enhance the nation's stability and make it an even more attractive destination for foreign investment, including major projects in civil aviation," Mr Hamod says.

His organisation hosted a delegation from the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority that was in the US this week to meet with representatives of American companies. Analysts suggest this investment in aviation can create new jobs and have a salutary effect throughout Iraqi society, even as a way of removing an incentive for sectarian violence. "Iraq is a country where much blood has been spilt and the emotions are present even today," says Saj Ahmad, the chief analyst at FBE Aerospace. "The only prospect of development is to bring fresh investment, more tourism and new services."

igale@thenational.ae