The airline industry needs a quick, decisive war in Iraq to set the recovery rolling. War may be awful - but phoney war is worse

The glimmer did not last. For a few hopeful months, in the first half of last year, as the 11 September aftershocks subsided and with the Taliban dispatched from Afghanistan, the industry dared to hope that recovery was on the way. A revival in the US economy was being forecast for quarter three. Airline passengers had begun to return. Boeing was enthusing about its Sonic Cruiser prospects and Fairchild Dornier about those of its 728 regional jet. And, if they were not actually placing orders, airlines were at least beginning to talk about fleet renewals.

Then, by the second half of last year, the slow drift towards war in Iraq threw the latent recovery into reverse, with airlines holding back on orders until the international situation was resolved. Although further terrorist outrages, including the devastating bomb in Bali, directed at Western tourists, further dented confidence, airlines and airframers started to blame the indecision over Iraq rather than 11 September for the industry's malaise.

This was certainly the case at the Airbus press conference last week. According to Airbus president Noel Forgeard, the uncertainty in the Middle East could turn an already dismal year for the two big manufacturers into a crisis. Orders for more than 100 aircraft apiece from two European low-cost airlines, EasyJet and Ryanair, masked what was a grim 2002 for Airbus and Boeing. Take these away and the performance was catastrophic. Not a single Boeing 757 was ordered all year; only eight Boeing 767s found customers and Airbus had net orders for just 12 A330s.

That is why Forgeard has called for a quick decision on possible hostilities. That is code for: "Let's get it over with." Despite the growing opposition in Europe in particular to UK and US unilateral action in Iraq, the discovery last week of undeclared empty chemical warheads by United Nations inspectors makes war now almost inevitable. Bar a remarkable about face by the UN Security Council, it seems certain that the so-called "smoking gun" excuse to go to war will be established and the allies given the UN's blessing to attack Saddam Hussein.

The best case scenario for the West would then be an eleventh-hour coup d'‚tat by the Iraqi military, deposing Saddam and installing some sort of provisional government committed to establishing democracy, a federal constitution and the rule of law in one of the world's most troublesome states. That task, although awesome, would be easier than in, say, Afghanistan, a mountainous, tribal country with poor communications, a subsistence agricultural economy, a barely functioning infrastructure and little national identity. Iraq is a modern, oil-rich nation, with a long cultural heritage, and a functioning civil service and military. By the middle of the year, Iraq could be under the rule of a benign interim president, albeit one put in place by the armed forces. Saddam would be dead, in jail or in humiliating exile.

The worst scenario - worse than the phoney war - would be a drawn-out, bloody campaign, another Vietnam, with the USA and its allies occupying a divided, starving country, fighting a guerrilla war and with Saddam Hussein, dead or alive, a Bin Laden-like martyr or hero. That - and the spread of unrest to the rest of the Middle East -- could plunge industry and the world economy into the deepest recession since the Second World War.

What we end up with depends on the good sense of Iraq's generals, until now loyal to Saddam. Knowing that the awesome air power of the USA would destroy within days what is left of their hardware after the previous Gulf War, it makes no sense for them to dig in for a long resistance. Iraq has its geographical challenges for any invading army - the marshes in the south, mountains to the north and two big rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris. But it is no Vietnam or Afghanistan with impenetrable mountains or jungles for guerrillas to hide in. The best Iraq's commanders could hope for would be to shoot down the occasional aircraft in the initial days of an air war and eventually to fight house-by-house for control of the capital. It is difficult to see Iraq's largely conscripted armed forces holding out any longer than they did in 1991.

No one wants a war. It may send defence stocks and President George Bush's poll ratings soaring, but it also means that lives are destroyed - innocent civilians as well as servicemen and women. However, being anything less than resolute with Saddam Hussein over the next few weeks will only prolong the agony of the aviation industry.

Source: Flight International