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Iranian Air Travel Revs Up Again, But New Planes Are Problem

March 19, 1992

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) _ Iran has launched a massive airport-building effort to break out of its isolation and attract desperately needed foreign investment after its Islamic revolution and its eight-year war with Iraq.

But efforts by the national flag carrier, Iran Air, to replace its aging Boeing fleet with more modern airliners are being stymied by the sanctions the United States imposed after the 1979 revolution.

The expansion program comes amid a drive by President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s government to rebuild bridges with the West and its Arab neighbors to draw capital and high-technology.

With one of the fastest-growing populations in the world - the current 58 million is expected to swell to 100 million by the year 2010 - Iran faces growing demand for domestic and international air travel.

It also wants to rebuild the thriving tourist industry it had before the revolution.

″We’re faced with numerous problems,″ primarily acquiring new planes, concedes Iran Air’s managing director, Hasan Shafti.

″The investment in some sectors of the aviation industry in our country has not changed at all″ for more than a decade even though traffic has tripled, he said.

He says the carrier plans to boost its annual passenger traffic from 6 million to 8 million by 1995.

Iran Air and Asseman Airlines, the state-owned domestic carrier, have been expanding operations since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Deputy Transport Minister Ali Mohammad Nourian said last month that 42 airports are being modernized and 21 more are being built. Nearly $1 billion has been set aside for the modernization program alone this year and next.

The largest project is the $3 billion Imam Khomeini international airport being built at Haft-e Tir, southwest of Tehran. When the final phase is completed in 2012, officials say it will handle 30 million passengers and 300,000 tons of cargo a year.

It is to take over all international flights currently operating out of Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, which is itself undergoing modernization.

Work has also started on new airports at Khorramabad, Tabas, Ilam, Ardebil, Arak and Yasuj. Others are planned in a dozen cities and seven hub airports are to be upgraded.

The airport at Abadan, destroyed during in the war with Iraq, was recently reopened in the first phase of a $70 million reconstruction program.

But planes are in short supply. Iran Air operates 33 mostly Boeing aircraft. Asseman has a fleet of 28, including Fokker F28-4000s and PB-N Islanders.

Shafti noted that the average age of Iran’s airliners is nearly 14 years, compared to six for major carriers’ fleets.

″Under international regulations, these aircraft must be phased out from international routes by the year 2002,″ he said.

But U.S. sanctions ban the sale of American-built aircraft or those which contain more than 20 percent of U.S.-made components.

Washington last year blocked British Aerospace from selling Asseman four short-haul BAe-146s, with the option for another eight, because they have U.S.-made wings, flight computers and wings.

Civil aviation officials disclosed that Iran Air got around the sanctions by acquiring five Boeings, possibly 727s or 737s, through unidentified third parties.

Iran Air was able to acquire six Fokker-100s from the Netherlands, with an option for six more, because U.S.-made products total less than the 20 percent of their components.

The airline has also discussed buying seven Airbus Industrie A300-600s worth $550 million to augment the five A300B2s it operates.

Since the war, the air force has turned over for commercial service some Boeing 747 transports bought in the 1970s.

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