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Iraqi aviation rising from the rubble

Posted 27 June 2019 · Add Comment

After the defeat of Islamic State (IS), Iraq is once again looking to its aviation potential. Tom Westcott reports from Baghdad.

Iraq is now refocusing on civil aviation after the defeat of IS and a decade-and-a-half of political turmoil and instability.
It is developing existing infrastructure, working on lifting a European Union (EU) flight ban and planning to rebuild an airport left flattened by IS.
“After 2014, when IS appeared in Iraq, the country faced a major security challenge, and aviation development was paused because all resources were being directed into the war,” said Ali Khalil Ibrahim, director of the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority (ICAA).
“In 2017, after all the cities were liberated from IS and security improved, the prime minister’s office decided to refocus on civil aviation and, since then, we have been making major efforts.”
The ICAA had long been part of Iraq’s Ministry of Transport and making it an independent entity, assuming full control of overseeing Iraqi aviation, was a priority. “We became fully independent in mid-2018 and this was a very positive step because we now follow International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) regulations, which insist that the national CAA body should be independent from all other government departments,” said Ibrahim. “We are now independent and taking responsibility for all decisions relating to civil aviation.”
Iraq is playing catch-up after decades of aviation neglect and sanctions, which left the country beyond the reach of changing aviation regulations, and the ICAA faces a major task.
“Iraq was away from the global perspectives of aviation for a long time. There was the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, then the embargoes of the 1990s, so Iraqi aviation staff couldn’t improve themselves and, during those decades, there were many advances in aviation and Iraq missed all these,” said Ibrahim.
The removal of former president, Saddam Hussein, from power in 2003 opened the doors for advances but brought with it a new set of challenges.
“After 2003, there were huge changes and demand for flights increased dramatically, putting urgent strain on the aviation sector. We had had no direct contact with the outside world and, in 2003, we found ourselves lacking everything – infrastructure, procedures, qualifications, legislation and human resources,” he explained.
Iraq has continued to experience an increase in both flight and passenger numbers. In 2017, more than 10 million passengers passed through Iraq’s five airports, travelling on 90,000 flights, compared to just over one million passengers on 6,000 flights in 2007.
Iraqi airspace was also controlled by coalition forces for the first nine years after the fall of Hussein, and Ibrahim said the country remained too unstable for aviation to develop in any meaningful way until 2007, when the ICAA started working in earnest.
While passenger and flight numbers were increasing, the ICAA worked in the background to try and update and improve the country’s lapsed civil aviation standards. “Between 2008 and 2012 we did a lot. We developed plans, we hired 150 Iraqis to be trained as air traffic controllers and worked with specialist international companies,” Ibrahim said. “Finally, in 2012, Iraqi airspace became fully Iraqi controlled.”
Just as Iraq’s aviation sector started really taking off, the country fell back into chaos, facilitating the growth of sectarian and terrorist groups. The dramatic rise of IS which, in 2014, rapidly seized control of almost one-third of Iraq, put the country’s civil aviation development on hold for another four years.
A further blow was dealt to the sector when, in 2015, sole state carrier, Iraqi Airways, was banned from flying in European airspace by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) because of safety issues and flaws in following international aviation standards. Iraqi Airways has continues to serve some of its European destinations via an agreement with Turkish airline Atlas Global.
“Between 2003 and 2014, Iraq was busy rehabilitating and we were far away from following the rules and regulations exactly. In parallel, the EU established EASA, making many new regulations,” said Ibrahim. The ICAA and Iraqi Airways, he said, are working hard to get the ban lifted, which they hope will be achieved by the end of this year.
Abbas N Majeed, director general of Iraqi Airways, explained that the main problem is documentation. “We are updating all our manuals and documentation now to make them suitable for international requirements,” he said. “As soon as we have fulfilled all International Air Transport Association (IATA) requirements, the ban will be lifted.”
He explained the company had entered the final phase of the four-stage process and that relatively few changes were still required, adding that the 30 Iraqi Airways pilots with EASA licences were already permitted to pilot Iraqi Airways’ European flights.
Alongside this, Iraqi Airways and the ICAA are working closely with the British authorities to reinstate direct flights to London which, at present, have to disembark all passengers in another European country – currently Bulgaria’s capital Sophia – for additional security checks, adding several hours to journey times.
Majeed said he expected London-bound flights would again be direct within a matter of months.
In keeping with general upgrades, the ICAA is developing its relations with the ICAO, as part of the agency’s ‘no country left behind’ (NCLB) initiative to support countries not yet complying with international aviation requirements.
Late last year, Iraqi aviation staff received security training from the agency and, in December, an ICAO delegation made its first official visit to Iraq in 10 years. Dependant on its universal safety oversight audit progression, Ibrahim said the ICAA is planning to be ICAO certified by 2020.
The most ambitious project the ICAA is currently working on is a new airport on the outskirts of Mosul, IS’ former ‘capital’ in northern Iraq.
IS destroyed key infrastructure in the former airport and lined the runway with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This, along with subsequent fighting between IS and Iraqi forces supported by US-led coalition airstrikes, left Mosul airport a rubble-strewn wasteland.
But an Iraqi Government project to rebuild aims to put Mosul back on the Iraqi aviation map. The proposed new airport will feature a passenger terminal with a cargo facility, which will be key to supporting ongoing post-war reconstruction efforts in Mosul.
“The plan is to rebuild the former airport. We have carried out a full survey of what remains of the airport and some parts can be rehabilitated and others will need to be rebuilt from scratch,” said Ibrahim. “This is a very important proposal, which would have a major impact for Mosul because, once the airport is built, it will be the main gate for construction materials for rebuilding and rehabilitating the city.”
Reconstruction materials are currently transported across land, a time-consuming process on Iraq’s often poor-quality roads, with lorries enduring long waits at military checkpoints.
The new Mosul airport proposal is currently with Iraq’s new government, awaiting approval. Once authorised, Ibrahim said completion of the proposed airport – which looks set to be a joint project between the Iraqi and French governments, most likely built by a consortium of French companies – is expected to be swift, with the facility operational within a year.
The ICAA is also encouraging Iraqi national airlines – including smaller private ventures Fly Baghdad and Nasser – to become members of IATA.
Membership, Ibrahim said, would have extensive commercial benefits, including the opportunity for national carriers to enter into bilateral agreements with international airlines, while improving operational capacity and services, while enabling the opening of new routes.
“In the next six to 12 months, hopefully by the end of 2019, we’re expecting to start seeing major changes. Initially we will see the changes internally and, after maybe three years, passengers will see visible improvements,” said Ibrahim. “Now we are building our bases, because our success depends on a solid plan, with achievable targets for the future.”
Iraqi Airways – the second oldest Middle Eastern airline – is awaiting delivery of the first batch of new aircraft as part of a major order for 26 new Boeing aircraft, the first of which are due for delivery in 2021. This, Majeed said, will pave the way for major future expansion.
Currently serving 48 destinations in 20 countries, he said Iraqi Airways hopes to double this number in the next decade. “Of course this sounds ambitious, but that is what we are working towards,” Majeed said. “We are very optimistic about the future of Iraqi Airways.

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