Iraq’s civil aviation has gone through turbulent times with several years of under investment and infrastructure collapse but now, as Keith Mwanalushi explains, there are signs of a re-emergence with the Kurdistan region leading the way.
The commercial opportunities of post-war Iraq are a talking point at several investment summits around the world and, not surprisingly, the Iraqi Ministry of Transport has announced various initiatives to create pristine international gateways, even though exact details have always been sketchy.
Towards the end of 2011, and after much anticipation, there were signs that activity was gaining momentum. Lufthansa Consulting began its evaluation of the ground handling requirements at Baghdad International Airport (BGW) and the international airports at Basra and Mosul.
The project aim of the German consultants is to ensure the operational readiness of the three airports before the end of 2012. Catrin Drawer, Director of Airport Development and Senior Consultant, explained: “The action plan devised is to assess the local facilities at the main airports.
“We did a status-quo analysis of the existing ground handling procedures, available resources as well as the interfaces and bottlenecks,” said Ms Drawer, adding that the evaluation involved co-operation between all the ground handling sectors and airlines, including other support areas such as immigration, ground traffic control and catering.
She continued: “We have also been assessing the relevant infrastructure from an airline perspective, such as the passenger terminal, baggage handling system, utilities, fire service, ground service equipment and cargo warehousing.”
Lufthansa Consulting has scrutinised the ATC communications – ground and tower – with slot procedures in place. The final phase of the contract to oversee the tender process is ongoing.
Baghdad airport closed to commercial flights in 1991 with the onset of the Gulf war. It reopened in 2003 after a $17.5m cash injection by American economic and humanitarian assistance agency USAID. Plans have been unveiled for an expansion at BGW to double its capacity size to 15 million passengers per year. The expansion includes building three new terminals and the existing three terminals will be refurbished through funding by foreign investors.
Airlines have been fairly quick to introduce services to the Iraqi capital, despite the slow pace of redevelopment at BGW. Flydubai added Baghdad and Najaf airports to its list of destinations in January 2012, in addition to services to Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, which were launched two years ago. Emirates added extra capacity in February, by boosting its Baghdad service to daily use of A330-200s, representing a capacity increase of 75% per week in both directions.
Local sources report that Basra International Airport is to undergo major expansion and renovation in preparation to host the Gulf Cup in 2015. More than $100m has been earmarked by the Iraqi transport ministry and the Basra Governorate (a province of the city). The projects at Basra include renovation of the passenger terminal, runway repairs, adding aero-bridges and providing other basic services such as water and electricity.
In the Iraqi Kurdistan region, airport infrastructure development has moved at a quicker pace, mainly due to the opening of the new Erbil International Airport (EIA) in September 2010.
The previous airport had only three gates, four check-in counters, a capacity for 300,000 passengers and a 9,186ft (2,800m) runway. In contrast, the new $365m EIA has a 775,000sq ft (72,000m2) passenger terminal with 20 check-in positions. Two satellite wings are connected to 16 gates, six with passenger boarding bridges. The airport is certified for CAT II operations with an annual capacity for three million passengers.
“It’s been a positive story on growth,” confirmed Andrew Jones, the airport’s Communications and Marketing Advisor when discussing the recent 2011 figures. Last year EIA processed 621,870 passengers, a 37% increase on the previous year, while cargo tonnage also increased dramatically, with a 67% increase to 17,769 tonnes per annum.
“We have had new airlines come in such as Turkish Airlines, Etihad and Egyptair. Turkish has already moved from three flights a week to daily. Etihad doubled from two to four and Atlasjet has also had a good year,” said Mr Jones.
The most popular routes are Istanbul and Baghdad with Turkish and Atlas leading the way on routes to the north, while Iraqi Airways continues to operate the most flights into Erbil with an average of around 95 per month.
The concept design and master plan for the development of EIA was conducted by the UK-based Scott Wilson Group and central to the design was how to tackle security. Security threats are limited in the Kurdistan region, but it remains of significant concern to justify some of the security measures in place.
All passengers, visitors and staff are screened in a purpose-built control building before accessing the terminal. Baggage belonging to departing passengers is checked and screened before entering the facility – once cleared, both are bussed to the terminal building.
On arrival at the terminal, passengers undergo the usual screening procedures conducted at all international airports. Members of the public awaiting arriving passengers are not allowed access to the terminal and must wait in a specified area several kilometres away from the terminal building.
The airport is set to grow further in 2012 but does not anticipate that the expansion rate will be as strong, reflecting the onset of a period of consolidation for EIA and reduced global levels of air travel due to economic woes.
“We expect growth to slow – the airlines that we expected to come are already here. There are a number of barriers to the way the airport can market itself to would-be airlines and it’s important to note that we have no open skies policies here in Iraq,” said Mr Jones, adding that the insurance market does not differentiate between the rest of Iraq and Kurdistan.
Despite some limitations, he said airport management would like to see more direct flights to additional destinations such as the UK, France and the Netherlands. “Currently, this is not possible. Our strategy in 2012 and beyond is to help bring about the conditions where these sorts of flights are more likely to happen,” he added.
Organisers of the upcoming 2012 Iraq Airports Expansion Cargo and Logistics Conference in October have indicated a private sector investment project worth $16bn is under way in Erbil, Sulaymaniaya and Duhok Airport.