Iraqi Airways has operated its first nonstop scheduled flight from London to Baghdad for 23 years, landing in the Iraqi capital at 9am local time on 6 March with a newly delivered Airbus A330.

A previous attempt by the carrier to launch London flights was scuppered by Kuwait Airways in 2010, when the leased aircraft was impounded and Iraqi Airways' director general detained by British police.

The two flag carriers had been locked in a two-decade-long legal battle over the alleged theft of 10 Kuwaiti aircraft by Saddam Hussein's troops in 1990. The bitter row was settled late last year, after Iraqi Airways agreed to pay a reduced sum of $500 million in compensation.

Forty eight passengers travelled on the inaugural Baghdad-London Gatwick service, which includes a stopover in Malmo, Sweden for additional security checks. The nonstop London Gatwick-Baghdad leg carried 68 passengers.

Although the twice weekly route has launched with 20% load factors, Abir Burhan, Iraqi Airways UK operations manager, says forward bookings are exceeding expectations. The 29 March return service has sold out, he notes, while the 26 March return flight has an 80% load factor.

"There's plenty of demand [for flights to Baghdad] in the UK," Burhan tells Flightglobal. "About a quarter of a million of Iraqis live in the UK, and you also have all the through traffic coming from the United States."

Iraqi Airways will increase frequencies on the Baghdad route to four times a week in June. It will also double its newly launched service from Gatwick to the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah from once to twice weekly.

The airline is cautiously optimistic of making the Baghdad-London Gatwick leg nonstop within 12 months. "We want to operate nonstop, absolutely, but we can't right now," Burhan says. "Iraq hasn't met the standards for aviation security that the UK has set, so until they do that we can't operate nonstop.

"But flying nonstop from London to Baghdad is amazing for the country, for the people, for business. It's a historic flight."

The Iraqi flag carrier is considering the possibility of switching to London Heathrow airport in the future, Burhan adds, though he stresses that Gatwick is a good fit for the British capital's visiting friends and relatives (VFR) traffic.

"Right now we're happy at Gatwick, but we do want to operate from Heathrow," he says. "Gatwick is a good airport for the Iraqi VFR community, so we don't have massive demand from our customers to switch to Heathrow. But the corporate travellers, the high-end spenders really want Heathrow."

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news