Turbulent takeoff

Iraqi Airways’ one plane is airborne again with flights to Jordan and Syria

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By  David Robinson Published  November 11, 2004

After more than a decade spent rusting on the sidelines, Iraq’s national airline has started flying again. Last month, Iraqi Airways’ one plane — a 116-seat Boeing 737-200 — began making trips to nearby Middle Eastern capitals, Damascus and Amman, and more regional routes including Dubai and Tehran are on the agenda. Iraq’s interim Deputy Minister of Transportation Atta Nabeil told The New York Times that the government-owned airline has begun making plans to expand its fleet, add destinations and renovate its headquarters. “We are looking at this as a business,” he was quoted as saying. “We don’t want to subsidise anything. We would like to operate just like any normal private operator. We would like to make a profit.” But that may prove a difficult task in a country where insurgents regularly fire rockets at aeroplanes. Last year, a DHL cargo plane landed at the airport with its wing on fire from a rocket attack. There were no injuries. To stay out of range of fire, pilots must make steep corkscrew descents within the 30-square-kilometre area around the airport that is sealed off by US troops. Iraqi Airways General Manager Fadel Abbas Alkaram gave a sombre assessment of the carrier’s prospects. He says as the airline’s flights are “not full,” the government is coughing up cash to keep it flying. “We’ve already spent this year’s budget and next year’s as well,” he admits. Iraqi Airways was founded in 1946 and grew to 23 planes that serviced cities across Europe, Africa and the Middle East before Iraq’s escalating woes forced it out of the skies. Just before the 1991 invasion of Kuwait, the airline flew most of its fleet out of harm’s way to Iran, Jordan and Tunisia, where the planes deteriorated during the years of sanctions. Back in Iraq, what was left of the fleet stayed on the ground until 2001, when the airline restarted domestic flights between Baghdad, Mosul and Basra with its seven functioning Boeing planes. It also managed to ferry pilgrims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia before the second Gulf war last year stopped flights completely. The conflict’s aftermath devastated the airline. Its multi-storey headquarters were burned, looted and badly damaged. Bombing destroyed landing strips and a US missile hit an airport terminal. Two working planes, including a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, were vandalised. Nonetheless, Iraqi Airways reportedly expects to sign a lease deal on another Boeing or two in the coming months. Officials also say they think at least two 727s from the old fleet can be salvaged. Round-trip flights to Amman cost about US$750.

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