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Sat, Jun 04, 2005

Iraqi Airways Fights To Recover Planes, Resume Service

Machines Were Flown Away For Safekeeping -- In 1991

By Aero-News Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. 'Hognose' O'Brien

The Iraqi newspaper Al-Sabah is reporting that Iraqi Airways may be close to getting its impounded jets back, according to popular Iraqi blog, Iraq The Model. Meanwhile, Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera reports that the airline flew its first domestic flight June 1st -- from Baghdad to Basra, reopening a route that has been closed for fourteen years.

In the newspaper, the Iraqi Minister of Transport expressed optimism about the return of the seized planes, which have been held in neighboring countries since the Gulf War.

Iran holds the most aircraft, because it was a preferred destination for aircraft flown to safety, but Kuwait also holds Iraqi civil aircraft that were caught on the ground by the lightning coalition invasion of 1991. That is complicated by the unpleasant fact that when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, among the spoils they seized were at least 15 Kuwaiti aircraft, not all of which were recovered by the Kuwaitis postwar. These machines have been the subject of an ICAO resolution, A28-7.

In addition, a few planes are held by Jordan and Tunisia. (The photo, by Emirates pilot Brian McMorrow and used with his permission, shows the fleet of Iraqi 727s currently mothballed in Amman, Jordan. Before the Gulf War, Iraqi Airways operated a mix of Antonov cargo and Boeing passenger types. From 1991 to 2003 it was reduced to skeleton-crew status, and it lost further aircraft in the 2003 war, destroyed on the ground in the "shock and awe" campaign.

But now, things are looking up. "The minister explained that Iran has promised to release the aircrafts soon, while there are some positive signs of a similar resolution coming from the Kuwaiti authorities," blogger Omar al-Fadhil wrote.

The return of the aircraft, 16 in all, has been forecast before (as long ago as 2003). Jordan and Tunisia in particular neither used nor completely neglected the planes, allowing Iraqi mechanics to keep up some of their regular maintenance, in the expectation that Iraqi would soon be back in business. Iran, on the other hand, painted Iranian registration numbers on the planes it had and co-opted them into its own state airline. What has changed recently is the Iranian government's need for a gesture to back its claims that it is not supporting insurgents and terrorists in Iraq.

One small sign of the resurgence of the airline, which started flying with Dragon Rapide biplanes after World War II, is the resumption of domestic flights. Today (1 June) the first regularly scheduled Baghdad-Basra flight took place. Unlike the symbolic flight from Baghdad to Amman last September, this flight carried passengers. The 737-200 used today is not state of the art, but airline officials are overjoyed to be flying at all. (At least two airplanes in use by Iraqi, a 727 and a 737, are newly purchased used planes). During a period of over ten years, they were grounded by lack of planes, UN sanctions, and Coalition-enforced "no-fly" zones, the rules of which forbade passage to airliners but permitted Saddam's Hind helicopters to do their deadly work.

The organization survived by turning its overseas offices into business centers and hired out its skilled mechanics to other Arabic nations, airline official Isaac Esho told Al-Jazeera.

Iraqi Airways has been slow to recover from its doldrums, partly because of the missing aircraft, but also because of the lack of current aircrew and the uncertain security situation. A return of impounded Iraqi planes from Iran and Kuwait would go a long way to allowing the white and green planes to resume a complete, normal schedule on domestic and international routes. But Esho fears that the planes have not been maintained well enough to be put into service immediately. Iraqi Airways plans to send out teams of inspectors and mechanics to assess and repair these machines, and Iraqi politicians have appealed to Western and Muslim nations alike for assistance.

Few westerners had heard of the fly-out of civil airliners in 1991, but most have heard of the flight of military aircraft, which took place after a brief attempt to resist Coalition airpower. While the Iraqis are likely to get their airliners back, the combat jets are a different story. The planes which fled to Iran were incorporated in the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF). For example, the Iranian Mirage F-1s at Mashhad near the Turkmen border and many of the Su-24MKs based around the country are ex-Iraqi machines.

Returning to Iraqi Airways, the flag carrier faces problems that make the plight of, say, America West, United or Delta seem relatively benign. But they have one advantage that the struggling American airlines can only envy: fuel prices in Iraq, while wildly unstable, are normally well under a dollar a gallon.

FMI: www.aaco.org/airlines_iraqi.asp, www.pbase.com/bmcmorrow

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