IATA and other industry groups are working to reintegrate Iraq into the world aviation community. Their success will aid airlines throughout the Middle East
The issue of Iraq has been a recurring source of problems for the world's airlines since that country invaded Kuwait in 1990. Since then, commercial flights into or out the country have been banned by the United Nations and the airspace over its territory has become a 440,000 km2 (170,000 miles2) "no-fly" zone. Now that the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein has ushered in a new era for Iraq, the airline community has begun working for change.
An issue that has been an annoyance to airlines all over the world for 13years has been overflights. IATA estimates that under normal circumstances, more than 60,000 flights a year would fly over or into Iraq, most of them over. However, because the country's airspace is off-limits, all commercial flights are required to make costly and time-consuming diversions.
Abdul Wahab Teffaha, secretary general of the Arab Air Carrier Organisation (AACO), whose membership is most affected by the restrictions, says that the diversions add an hour to flights from the Middle East to India and South-East Asia, and 40 minutes from most Gulf destinations to Europe. To combat this, AACO has joined IATA in lobbying the US administrators of Iraq to grant access to the country's airspace.
Gunther Matschnigg, senior vice-president for safety, operations and infrastructure at IATA, reports steady progress, saying: "We hope the airspace will be open in a very, very few weeks. There is a big, strong will to make it work." He adds, however, that circumspection will win out over enthusiasm. "We won't rush to open it and then expose ourselves to problems later," he says.
One problem that does not concern Matschnigg is the notion that the Iraq's current lawless state might affect the safety of aircraft overflying the country. At 37,000ft (11,300m), he says, airliners would be well out of harm's way.
But as well as the question of when airlines will be able to fly over Iraq, there is the equally interesting issue of when airlines will be able to fly to it. That is something that stands to benefit not just Iraq, but also airlines at the other end of the route.
AACO head Teffaha believes the Iraq market will be a lucrative one. He explains that in the last year of relative normality almost four million people travelled by air to, from or within the country, almost the same size market as that of Saudi Arabia. And with the demand created by the post-war reconstruction, he believes present annual demand is around four to six million international passengers, with ample growth potential.
Back to Baghdad
Compared to the overflight issue, on-the-ground security is a major obstacle to the opening of services to Iraq. Matschnigg points out that the country is still, for all intents and purposes, at war. Teffaha agrees, saying that while the technical problems inherent with opening Baghdad's airport for service are easily overcome, those surrounding safety and security require more attention.
The AACO chief still predicts a relatively prompt return to Baghdad, initially with three airlines granted slots. He adds that the coalition administrators have promised AACO member airlines two of them. Thus far, about 30 carriers, including Gulf Air, Kuwait Airways and Lufthansa, have applied for the slot rights, but a notification date has not yet been announced.
Another component of the return of Iraq to the world aviation community will be the renaissance of Iraqi Airways. Teffaha says that Iraq's flag carrier - an active AACO member - currently has an operable fleet of three Boeing 727s, but that the company's high-quality human resources and likely traffic base make it a promising airline. He adds that the region's other carriers are keen to help it, driven by a feeling of solidarity with the long-suffering country and its airline.
Gulf Air vice-president for network Fareed Al-Alawi backs this up, saying the Bahrain-based carrier would be delighted to extend its assistance, in areas ranging from commercial planning to engineering. "We will be happy to do what we can to help the airline get back on its feet," he says. n
REPORT BY RICHARD PINKHAM IN KUWAIT CITY
Source: Airline Business