It has been just over a month now since the two major airports in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan were closed to international air traffic. The closure came as a result of the referendum on Kurdish independence held in the region in late September. The federal government in Iraq had said the referendum was unconstitutional and as a result, one day after it was held, the federal government demanded it be given control of Iraqi Kurdistan’s border points and airports. It was clearly also a way to ratchet up pressure on the Kurdish.
The Kurdish were given three days to hand over their airports or face the threat of international flights being cancelled. After the 29th and 30th of September, this happened – the only exempt flights were domestic ones as well as military, diplomatic or UN delegation flights.
All of the Kurdish people living outside the country simply stopped coming. People are only using the domestic flights if they really have to.
Losses as a result of this ban at both airports are now estimated to be as high as US$1 million per day, according to Kurdish officials who spoke with NIQASH. The number of passengers has fallen to less than 300 per day. Up until the ban, there had been at least 2,000 passengers per day coming through the airports.
Before the ban there had been between 70 and 100 flights a week, carrying between 1,000 and 1,500 people a day, Sulaymaniyah’s airport director, Taher Abdullah, told NIQASH. “But now we don’t get more than 100 to 150 people and most of those are the passengers travelling through Baghdad,” Abdullah noted.
Formerly the Kurdish airports had been doing almost around half of Iraq’s international aviation business. The Iraqi Kurdish region has long been a favourite launching point for foreigners in Iraq as the region has tended to be more peaceful and prosperous than other parts of the country. Erbil airport opened in December 2003, with the new modern version opening in 2010, and Sulaymaniyah airport opened in July 2005. But now, where once the departures and arrivals boards were filled with exotic names – Dubai, Frankfurt, Copenhagen – now there are only one or two local names, usually Baghdad or Najaf.
Although there is some hope that the airports could re-open soon because it has been agreed that the central government should be in control of them, which was a major condition for their reopening, Abdullah says he has no idea when his might go back to full service.
“We have asked the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority to meet with us, so they can tell us what the conditions for re-opening the airport might be – but we have had no response,” Abdullah told NIQASH.
Despite the fact that the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has said several times that the closure of the Kurdish airports is not supposed to equate to a collective punishment, there is no doubt the international flight ban is causing locals problems.
As one native of Sulaymaniyah tells, he was in the US when the ban came into force and his trip home went from a simple flight to 23 hours in transit in Doha and then Baghdad. “I lost a lot of money,” the traveller, Hussein Barzanji, says. “The only company that is benefitting from this decision is [domestic carrier] Iraqi Airways, because everyone is forced to travel on its planes.”
Local travel firms are also feeling the pain, as international travel has almost completely halted.
“All of the Kurdish people living outside the country simply stopped coming,” says Rabin Khasro, the head of a local agency called Moonlight Tourism. “There are also a lot of reasons for foreigners to come to Kurdistan whereas Iraq is a different destination altogether. People are only using the domestic flights if they really have to. All of which is leading to a major drop in bookings and flights.”
The losses differ from tour company to tour company, Khasro notes. “But we are a big company with branches right around the country and we are seeing significant losses,” he concedes. “Our monthly expenses are around US$250,000 and at the moment we are not even making 10 percent of that.”
The two airports have different levels of revenue: Erbil airport is a lot bigger than Sulaymaniyah. But losses due to the international travel ban are about US$1 million a day, reports Omed Mohammed, the spokesperson for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry of Transport and Communications, based in Erbil.
“When we talk about the losses caused by the closures, there are a lot of things to be considered,” Mohammed told NIQASH. “It’s not only about the suspension of flights that were bringing in 3,500 people a day. We also have to consider the airlines’ losses, travel agencies, customs agents, duty free shops and many other revenues. The whole sector is losing about US$1 million per day.”
And there is no new information about when the airports will reopen either, Saleh concluded, other than attempts to reach an agreement and have international flights resume are ongoing.
The committee on municipalities, transport, communication and tourism in the Iraqi Kurdish parliament doesn’t have any better news either.
“We consider the decision a form of collective punishment by the Iraqi government,” Kurdish politician and committee member, Abbas Fattah, told NIQASH. “However, we can’t despair and we will continue efforts to get the airports open again, and to reach an agreement with the central government.”