Emirates Airline has announced that it is launching services to Baghdad, joining a growing list of carriers that are gradually adding more flights to Iraq as the country’s economic and security situation improves.
For the past two decades the commercial aviation sector in Iraq has been crippled by security fears, lack of infrastructure, and UN Security Council ‘no fly zone’ restrictions that were imposed following the country’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. However, the country is slowly seeing improvements in its security situation and infrastructure, thus creating an emerging market that many international carriers are keen to tap.
With one of the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Iraq is also benefitting from oil prices that have soared above $100 this year. The International Monetary Fund estimates that higher oil revenues will help Iraq’s economy grow 11.5% in 2011, up from 2.6% last year.
The country also sees the aviation sector as a key driver of economic growth, and has ambitious plans to rebuild and expand its aviation infrastructure. However, the government’s proposed expansion of Baghdad airport has faced delays due to the lack of private investment needed to help fund the project.
Better progress on the country’s aviation infrastructure has been made in the northern province of Kurdistan, where the new $450m Irbil International airport was opened in September 2010. The new airport can handle three million passengers a year and boasts the fifth largest runway in the world.
Emirates launches service to Baghdad
As Iraq’s economy, security, and infrastructure has improved, a growing number of regional and international airlines have launched flights to and from the country. Last week Emirates became the latest airline to announce that it will fly to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, with four-times-a-week service commencing on November 13th.
“Baghdad is a strategically important destination for Emirates,” said Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman and Chief Executive, Emirates Airline and Group. “Its geographical location, coupled with the fact that few international carriers operate there, makes it the perfect destination for us to tap into and drive revenue from. With more than five million residents in Baghdad, and its surrounding districts, this new service will provide them with direct access to our vast global network.”
Emirates began flying to the southern oil port town of Basra last year and was scheduled to launch flights to Baghdad at the same time before delaying the plans “due to operational reasons”.
The airline expects the passenger mix travelling in and out of Baghdad to come from a variety of sources, with a significant skew towards industry and government personnel. The construction, telecommunications and oil sectors are expected to make up three of the largest industry segments. Iraqi nationals, both in Baghdad and residing outside of Iraq are also expected to be strong users of this new service.
Egypt Air resumes service to Iraq
Cairo-headquartered EgyptAir also said last week that it will resume flights to Iraq after a 21-year absence. Hussein Massoud, chairman of the EgyptAir holding company, said that starting July 15, there will be seven weekly flights to Iraq — four to Baghdad and three to Irbil in Kurdistan.
“Egypt and Iraq are linked together with commercial and cultural ties [and] Iraq represents a fertile market for the Egyptian investments,” he said.
EgyptAir and Emirates will join other regional carriers such as Etihad Airways, Royal Jordanian and Turkish Airlines which fly to the Iraqi capital. Etihad has said that demand for its Baghdad route has been strong since the service was launched last year, with flights more than 70% full.
Austrian Airlines is first Western carrier to return
Middle East carriers are not the only airlines that are keen to enter Baghdad. Earlier this month, Austrian Airlines became the first major Western carrier to resume regular flights to the Iraqi capital since the first Gulf War in 1990.
The airline, which began flying to Baghdad in 1982, was one of the first European carriers to resume links to Iraq following the second Gulf War, inaugurating flights between Vienna and Irbil in 2006. Lufthansa has also resumed flights to Irbil.
Other European carriers such Lufthansa and BMI have expressed interest in flying to Baghdad but have yet to do so. France’s Aigle Azur flew to the Iraqi capital last fall on an inaugural flight carrying French officials. The ceremonial flight was supposed to be followed by regularly-scheduled flights this year between Paris and Baghdad, but this was postponed for security reasons.