Nachaat Numir, the chairman and managing director of Syrian Arab Airlines (Syrianair) has been living in the shadow of frequent outbursts of neighbouring conflicts and ostracisation of his country described by the US as a rogue state, while trying to loosen the strangulating effect of sanctions on the airline’s operations.

In spite of business being “good and growing”, Syrianair cannot fully exploit what he calls the “huge potential in the area and the market”, because of a shortage of aircraft. The airline has been planning to replace its two Boeing 747SPs and six 727-200s for some time, but has been unable to obtain replacement aircraft or spares for its existing fleet.

Nachaat Numir

This has forced Syrianair to once again turn to Russia. Negotiations are on-going for the acquisition of an undisclosed number of Ilyushin IL-96-400s and Tupolev Tu-204s, with either local or Rolls-Royce engines, but it is also evaluating offers for wet- and dry-lease capacity from other sources. While financially a deal with the Russians would be to the carrier’s advantage, Nachaat says issues of servicing and support at its international destinations remains a concern. In the Soviet days when airlines in Eastern Europe all operated Russian- and Ukrainian-built aircraft, there was no problem, he says, but now all have switched over to Western types.

“The Russians are working to find a solution, and we hope to have the support and spare parts issue resolved by March 2007,” he says. But Nachaat admits that as all the airline’s engineers and technicians have experience with Airbus and Boeing aircraft, with only a few familiar with Russian aircraft, he would have preferred to look to the West for its fleet expansion and renewal. “The ideal solution is Western aircraft,” he says, “but the political situation is governing everything. We keep trying with Airbus and Boeing and there has been no closing of the doors.”

But all is not yet lost. The recent agreement by the US government to provide Iran Air with spare parts is seen by Nachaat as an encouraging sign and, if extended to Syria, could at least help in keeping the older aircraft in the air. “They have solved the problem with Iran,” he says. “We can try for the same.” But first, he adds: “It is most important that we convince the US that ours is a commercial operation.”

A contract has been signed with Sabre Airline Solutions to assist with re-organisation of the network, with the emphasis on eliminating unprofitable routes and boosting frequencies and timings on high-value destinations, such as Dubai, Jeddah, Kuwait, Paris and London. Bahrain, Mumbai and Benghazi have already been suspended and more will follow. Long-haul flights could be re-activated, says Nachaat, but this will depend on the outcome of the fleet negotiations. The active mainline fleet comprises six Airbus A320s, three Boeing 727-200s, two 747SPs and a few small Yak-40 trijets.

Naachat reconfirms that there are no plans to privatise Syrianair, but says the government has given permission for a joint-venture regional airline, which could be established with private local finance or an existing Arab airline as a strategic partner. A majority stake could be offered to the private sector, he says. The private sector is already involved in the building of a training centre for cabin crew at Damascus International Airport, which could open in the second quarter for 2007.

The new regional airline would use a combination of jet and turboprop aircraft, ranging in capacity from 50-100 seats. Based in Damascus, its network would include domestic routes and neighbouring destinations within a maximum flight time of two hours. A feasibility study is in progress. Syrianair had at one time proposed a similar regional operation jointly with Middle East Airlines under the name of Phoenician Express, but the unstable situation in the Lebanon put this on the back burner.

Nachaat does not, however, rule out revisiting this possibility. “Whenever we start [to develop a project], we are faced with yet another political obstacle,” Nachaat says. It is a plight only to familiar to Syrian Arab Airlines.


Source: Airline Business