Iranian army closes new airport on opening day

The new Imam Khomeini International Airport gets caught up in Iranian politics, as the army shuts it down on its first day. When it will re-open is far from clear.

  • E-Mail
By  Neil Denslow Published  June 6, 2004

|~|tehran_m.jpg|~||~|Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKIA), Tehran’s new airport, was shut down on its first day of operation, 8th May, by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Armed vehicles were parked on the runway to prevent aircraft from landing at IKIA, and even though the IRGC has now withdrawn from the airport, it is far from clear when operations will resume. The US $475 million IKIA, which took 30 years of construction to build, is located 45 km south of Tehran. It is meant to replace the old Mehrabad Airport in the centre of the capital, and the Iranian government has ambitions for it to become a regional hub handling 40 million passengers a year. However, on its first day, IKIA handled only one flight, an Emirates service, before it was shutdown by the IRGC. The next incoming flight, an Iran Air plane, was reportedly threatened with anti-aircraft fire before being escorted to Isfahan, 155 km away, by two fighters. Further flights were then routed to Mehrabad. The IRGC said that it had acted because of security concerns surrounding the operators of the airport, Tepe-Afken-Vie (TAV), the Turkish-Austrian consortium that currently runs Istanbul and Ankara airports, and which was meant to construct a second terminal at IKIA. “Unfortunately, officials at the airport ignored the security measures... on not deploying foreign groups at this vital centre in the country,” said a joint-armed forces statement issued on the day of shutdown. The facility was to remain closed until the armed forces had “seen the cancellation of the contract with the Turkish company and a new contract [was signed] with Iranian firms,” the statement continued. Employees of TAV were also ordered to leave the airport, with their equipment, and operations were handed over to the state carrier, Iran Air. TAV’s involvement in the airport had been controversial in Iran for some time, mainly because of Turkey’s ties with Israel, which may have been the ‘security issues’ cited by the military. Conservative newspapers, for instance, had attacked the project in a number of ways, including denouncing the high cost of the official inauguration ceremony in February, while two local airlines had said they would refuse to transfer their flights to IKIA. “We are not flying from an airport run by foreigners,” Ali Abedzadeh, director of state-owned Aseman Airline, was quoted as saying by Economic Hayat-e No. However, other reasons for the shutdown, aside from security, have also been suggested, including higher fuel and handling charges than at Mehrabad, and the fact that IRGC, which was involved in building IKIA’s Terminal 1, may have wanted to build the second terminal. Government officials have also sought to attribute the shutdown to factors beside politics. Ala’eddin Borujerdi, a member of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said that the airport was simply not ready and that “its initiation was hasty.” TAV also sought to play down the political aspects of the dispute. On the 9th, it said in a statement that it believed its memorandum of understanding, which also covered constructing the $193 million second terminal, was still valid, and that the dispute would be resolved in three weeks. “This matter is nothing more than the small local airlines trying to avoid moving from the existing Mehrabad Airport to the Imam Khomeini Airport,” it said.||**|||~|tav_m.jpg|~|Sani Sener of TAV|~|However, once TAV withdrew its personnel and equipment from the airport grounds, the IRGC stated that operations could begin. The reformist government, however, said that IKIA would not re-open until an investigation into the shutdown was completed. The probe was ordered by the parliament speaker, Mehdi Karroubi, who called the closure “a disaster and a disgrace for the country.” The cabinet, a report from the official IRNA news agency added, had also called for the “prosecution and punishment of the culprit or culprits.” The Iranian people largely appear to view the shutdown as a political game that does the country little good. “The public in general is not that involved in the debate,” observed Ali Ghezelbash, a Tehran-based business consultant. “There is a general sense that it is causing embarrassment, but people are just laughing that these politicians can’t get an airport open on time,” he added. As Aviation Business Middle East went to press, estimates as to when IKIA will re-open range from weeks to months. The Civil Aviation Organisation (CAO), however, is hopeful that it will be soon. “IKIA will be operational in the near future, but we don’t know when,” said H. A. Shahbazilar, deputy, aeronautical & international affairs, CAO. “The airport is ready to be operated, but we are awaiting authorisation from the government.” The effects of the shutdown on air travel have been fairly minimal. No carriers have stopped serving Tehran, as they have been able to continue flying to Mehrabad. BA’s franchise partner, British Mediterranean Airways (BMed), for instance, has maintained its services. “We continue to monitor developments surrounding the new airport and are working with the Iranian Authorities to ensure a smooth transition to IKIA when the airport is fully operational,” added Joelle Watkins, marketing manager, BMed. Iran Air is also still flying to Tehran and its Dubai office reported no fall in traffic. Air France is also not delaying its plans to launch services to Tehran on 15th June, despite not knowing which airport it will be flying to. “We are working on a plan A and a plan B,” said Bernard Bazot, Air France’s Middle East general manager. Even if IKIA is re-opened, whether or not TAV will still be involved in the project is in serious doubt. The company still has staff in Tehran, but the IRGC and other conservative elements seem fundamentally opposed to the involvement of foreign companies. However, speaking to Aviation Business Middle East before the opening, TAV’s CEO, Sani Sener, emphasised that the company would be employing a large number of Iranian nationals. “We always use local power,” he said. “In Iran, the maximum number of engineers or operators from Turkey will be 50. The other 600-700 personnel will be Iranian,” he added. TAV, which won a tender for the BOT contract against two other companies, had already made a significant investment at IKIA, building a temporary cargo centre, a catering facility and importing groundhandling equipment. Alongside operating Terminal 1 and building the second terminal, Sener also outlined plans to build a permanent cargo building and a five star hotel. “After two years, when we have finished constructing the buildings, we will jointly operate them,” he said. Whether any of this construction work will go ahead depends on who wins out between the reformist government and the conservatives. Ahmad Khoram, the road & transport minister, is supporting the continued involvement of TAV at the airport, saying that expelling foreign contractors to satisfy the military would be like ‘shutting the country’s gates.’ However, conservatives are also targeting Khoram as well. Ahmad Tavakkoli, a conservative elected to the incoming parliament, was quoted by ISNA, as saying that anyone witnessing, “such an embarrassing disaster… should not remain in his position for even an hour.” While in response to Khoram’s suggestion that TAV may need to be paid $20 million in compensation, Ardabil representative, Vali Azarvash, a member of the parliament’s Construction Committee, said that the minister “must pay the... compensation out of his own blessed pocket.” Whoever wins out, the struggle between the conservatives and reformists will do little to encourage further foreign investment in Iran, which is also subject to a US trade embargo. Plans to privatise seven other airports in the country, which TAV was keen to be involved in, certainly look likely to be put on hold for now. Whether TAV would still want to take part is unclear; Saner was unavailable for comment when contacted by Aviation Business. However, Ghezelbash believes the shutdown will not deter all foreign companies from investing in Iran. “Even if this hadn’t happened, companies would still need to evaluate the risks of investing. This is true for all countries, but perhaps more so for Iran,” he said. “Those companies already in are staying in, though. I don’t think [the shutdown] will scare them too much, but those who are undecided about coming in, may think about it much more,” he added.||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code