On September 4, passengers waiting for an internal flight from Baghdad to Erbil, in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, were preparing to board their Iraqi Airways plane north. They were supposed to leave at 5:30pm. However the flight was delayed twice and only, after much misinformation and several false starts, did it leave at 10:30pm.
By then, some passengers had already set off overland – the road trip to Baghdad takes between five and six hours but is dangerous, both in terms of security and because of road conditions. The highway between Baghdad and Erbil is mostly a single lane blacktop divided only by a white painted line, along which everyone, from fast moving 4WDs to huge lumbering trucks, must drive. Accidents are common.
The other problem for Iraqis travelling by land is the tough security at the border to Iraqi Kurdistan and its major cities: if ordinary Iraqis arrive here without the right paperwork they may well be turned away and have to go all the way back.
But Iraqi Airways refused to compensate passengers who were delayed, some of whom missed expensive flights to Europe.
And the passengers stranded in early September are not the only ones. Despite efforts since late 2004 to restore the “green wings” to their former glory, Iraqi Airways is still plagued by problems and flights are often delayed or overbooked.
As hapless travellers will tell you, they might well end up staying at an airport for days because of delays or over booking or because seats are all suddenly taken by government officials. And that is despite the fact that many government officials seem to prefer to take almost any other airliner than the national one. Most are only seen on Iraqi Airways when they have official appointments.
In fact, last month things got so bad that Turkish aviation authorities banned Iraqi Airways planes from landing in that country because of what they described as a "lack of commitment to Iraqi Airways schedules”.
The delayed flights were causing chaos with Turkish air control, disrupting other flights and stranding passengers for, in some cases, days at Turkish airports, they said. For example, some Iraqi passengers, who had spent the annual Eid holiday in Turkey, ended up spending another two days at Ankara and Istanbul airports waiting for their Iraqi airways flights.
However after long talks between aviation officials inside the two nations, Turkey rescinded that decision and allowed Iraqi Airways to land there again.
Iraqi Airways officials could not be reached by NIQASH to comment on the long delays and bad scheduling. And the Iraqi Airways website only said maintenance work was being performed and communications systems were being updated.
However a source inside Baghdad airport - Ahmed al-Shammari, an airport security officer – said there were several factors involved. There were mechanical failures in the Iraqi airways fleet, there had been maintenance work being done on the communications systems inside the airport and there had been a large number of foreign delegations arriving in Baghdad over the past fortnight.
This was confirmed by local MP, Mohammed al-Khafaji, a member of the Iraqi Parliament’s Services and Construction Committee, who said that several of the Iraqi Airways planes were not flying due to mechanical problems.
In May 2008, Iraq agreed to buy ten new aircraft from Bombardier Inc, of Canada; the total value of ten plane deal was meant to be worth around US$400-million and involved sales of the company’s CRJ900 NextGen aircraft. However due to an ongoing court case involving Kuwait airlines over reparations owed to them by Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1990, not all of the planes were delivered. Currently six are in operation in the country with delivery of the other four being disputed by an international court.
And Al-Khafaji thinks that two of the Canadian planes in Iraq were defective.
Additionally, in early August, the Services and Construction Committee announced they were investigating allegations of corruption around the purchase of the planes, saying that the deal had been facilitated by an Iraqi with Canadian citizenship, whose son worked for Bombardier Canada, when in fact, the planes were not suitable for the job in Iraq. Whether there is any truth to these allegations remains to be seen. In the past Iraqi Airways has always bought from Boeing in the US.
The same committee had other criticisms for Iraqi Airways. For example, al-Khafaji noted, at one stage three airline passengers were forced to sit in a plane’s aisle because of over booking. “And eyewitnesses tell us that this is not the first time that kind of thing has happened,” he stated.
Clearly the company’s problems don’t end with delays and overbooking. Somewhat surprisingly, planes have also been known to take off earlier than scheduled.
Local journalist Faris Harram was one of the passengers booked to leave on an Iraqi Airways flight to Erbil from the city of Najaf. Somewhat unexpectedly the plane left early, stranding many of its passengers. Harram says Iraqi Airways then offered to transport the passengers to Baghdad where they could catch the firm’s 7pm flight to the same destination.
“And neither myself nor the other passengers really had any other option,” Harram recounts. “We are forced to get onto these old planes, which are actually not allowed to travel outside Iraq because of their condition. Yes,” he joked about the early flight, “this airline is completely committed to a lack of punctuality, delays and damaging the interests of its passengers.”
“There’s no other way to describe the work of this company than chaos,” adds Ayed al-Wasiti, an Iraqi businessman who frequently travels around the country and who holds Swedish nationality. “When the flights are not on time, the only answer you get if you’re delayed for hours, sometimes days, is “God willing, the flight will eventually go”.”
Often passengers are instructed to move into other halls of the airport on foot, before even entering the departure lounge. They’re usually told it is because a machine has broken down here, or for “security reasons”. And when they ask when their flight might be expected to depart, they say, they always get the same answer: “Very soon, God willing”.
So what will happen to Iraqi Airways next? Certainly the good intentions are there. Agreements have been made for the purchase of a new fleet, mostly from US-based aerospace manufacturer Boeing, as well as bilateral cooperation agreements made with regard to the rehabilitation of Iraq’s airports. And those in charge of the company say that they want to “restore the status and reputation of the company, which was one of the biggest and best in the region previously”.
Earlier this year, Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research based in the United Kingdom, told Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper that any such plans must be accompanied by staff recruitment and training.
Meanwhile Nasser Hussein Bandar, the head of Iraq\'s civil aviation authority told the same newspaper that they did have a plan: "Iraqi Airways has the experience, we have the know-how and with more than 3,600 staff that includes pilots, cabin crew, schedulers, operators and marketers,” he said. Up until now, all that they’ve lacked is the planes, he noted.
One thing is for certain though: for locals travelling on the national airline at the moment, who are experiencing delays, dragging baggage around airports and sitting in aisles, it will take a lot to restore the “green wings” to the prestigious position they once held here.