British Airways bills itself as “the world’s favourite airline.” American Airlines is famous for being “something special in the air.” And Delta “is ready when you are.” Iraqi Airways makes no such claims. One day, Iraq’s state-owned airline might be something special in the air and ready when you are, but that day may be years and a trade embargo away.
At the moment, Iraqi Airways doesn’t have a lot to offer its passengers. With a fleet that consists of just three planes—a Boeing 747 (a gift to Saddam Hussein from the royal family of Qatar), a Boeing 727, and a timeworn Russian-made Iluyshin 76—it offers limited domestic service. A flight or two a day from Baghdad to Mosul in northern Iraq, or the port city of Basra in the south, comprises the entire flight schedule.
By Western standards fares are dirt-cheap—one recent round-trip ticket went for the U.S. equivalent of $16.60. But the routes require pilots to pass through the country’s no-fly zones, and the travel experience may leave something to be desired. After paying a nominal departure tax, passengers are subjected to three x-ray luggage searches and one manual bag inspection. Then, as in most Third World countries, passengers must march out onto the tarmac and up a flight of stairs in order to board the aircraft.
The fact that Iraqi Airways is flying at all is a testament to its employees’ dedication and persistence. Just before the U.S. and allied forces evicted Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait and imposed a no-fly zone over most of Iraq in early 1991, the carrier was forced to cancel all flights indefinitely. To save its planes from destruction, the fleet was dispatched to foreign airports—mainly in nearby Jordan—where they remain impounded today.
The lack of flights and planes didn’t deter the 800-person staff from keeping Iraqi Airways alive during the 1990s. Maintenance engineers preserved their skills by assembling and disassembling a single Pratt & Whitney J93D-7 engine hundreds of times—for much of the decade it was the only commercial jet engine in the country. The carrier’s 120 pilots took regular refresher courses on a single flight simulator after two other simulators were cannibalized for parts. Without tickets to sell, agents peddled bus tours and copy services to businessmen, while the airline’s caterers substituted banquets and weddings for in-flight meals. Most employees held down second and third jobs to survive, dreaming of the day they could don their aqua uniforms and return to the air.
That day came on August 17, 2000, when Saddam Hussein airport—ten miles west of Baghdad—finally reopened. Although the airport—decorated with oversized portraits of Iraq’s controversial leader—remains a shadow of its former self, things are looking up. Rumor has it that Iraqi Airways may order 20 new Airbus jets (Seattle-based Boeing is no longer a consideration because of U.S. trade sanctions), which would give employees and passengers a new lease on life and transportation. With new planes in service and such devoted employees, only U.N. sanctions could keep Iraqi Airways from flying the friendly skies.