Those not familiar with Iraq will often fail to distinguish between the northern part, Kurdistan and the south. But readers of this article should take the time to put aside the caricature of Iraq and delve a little deeper to discover the reality.
The reality is that by year-end, American forces will have withdrawn from Iraq, handing over security responsibilities to the authorities in Baghdad. There will be no such handover in Kurdistan, where for many years now, security has been the responsibility of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its Peshmerga forces.
Under this regime there have been no major security incidents in the region since 2006. And most foreign governments, including the US and UK, have not had travel ‘advisories’ for the region for some time.
A secure and safe environment is an absolute pre-requisite to building and developing a diverse economy. The KRG has, for some time now, been working hard to attract inward investment as part of a longer-term strategic approach to the development of the region.
A very tangible sign of the KRG’s approach has been the design, construction and opening of Iraq’s, and the Middle East’s newest gateway, Erbil International Airport.
Commissioned in 2004 by the then KRG prime minister, Nichevan Barzani, it opened to traffic in September 2010, and was, subsequently, formally opened by Kurdistan’s President, Masoud Barzani, alongside Turkey’s prime minister in March 2011, in what was, and remains, a significant historical and politically significant meeting.
Previously, a smaller interim facility had operated using the existing runway from a former military airbase, abandoned by Saddam’s Baathist forces in 1991, and handed over to the KRG by the American led coalition in 2003.
The airport is a bold statement by the KRG, ending as it does many years of isolation from the international community and demonstrating in a very real way that Kurdistan is open for business.
With the opening up of oil and gas prospecting rights by the KRG, the construction boom in the major cities of Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniya, makes Kurdistan one of the few regions in the world where the GDP is growing.
Road infrastructure, schools, hospitals and universities have all seen major investment since the fall of Saddam, and the airport at Erbil is perhaps the best example of the progress that has been made to move the region from the poverty, suffering and repression of the Saddam era to a 21st century diverse economy.
Designed by UK firm URS Scott Wilson and constructed by Turkish group Makyol, the 16-gate terminal, with six fixed airbridges and a new 4,800-metre runway – one of the longest in the world – has a capacity of around three million passengers per annum.
In 2010, some 454,000 passengers came through Erbil International Airport (EIA), that number in itself, a 30% rise on the previous year.
At the end of October 2011, 512,203 passengers had passed through the gateway, a 35.5% increase on the same 10 months in 2010.
Cargo, too, has seen significant and meaningful increases – by the end of October, EIA ground handlers, Dnata, had processed 14,453 tonnes, a 72% increase on 2010.
The passenger increases have been helped by the arrival of Turkish Airlines, EygptAir, Pegasus and Air Cyprus in 2011. On the debit side, Gulf Air stopped its three times a week service from Bahrain, but that has been more than made up for by the decision of Etihad to move from two to four weekly flights to Abu Dhabi, and the launch of daily services by Turkish Airlines.
Atlas Jet, Middle East Airlines, Royal Jordanian, Fly Dubai, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines make up the remaining scheduled carriers, alongside Iraqi Airways, which operates all internal
flights in Iraq in addition to serving Damascus, Amman, Istanbul and Dubai.
Erbil International Airport is also host to a range of charter flights principally serving European markets.
Indeed, Erbil is now well served for those seeking a travel hub of choice, with Dubai, Vienna, Frankfurt and Istanbul all within easy reach.
Airport director Talar Faiq – the only female airport boss in Iraq – is delighted with the progress being made.
“It is very pleasing to see new airlines arriving and our existing carriers increasing capacity on their routes. A year-on-year increase of 35% is healthy enough in the current world economic climate, even though, the base numbers are quite small. In the future, I expect growth to continue, albeit at a slower pace.
“We know that air travel in Iraq is still in its early stages. Until 2003, no civilian services operated from Erbil. Across federal Iraq, currently no more than around 1.5mppa are using Iraq’s airports and estimates suggest that given the size of the population, 31 million, around six million people should be flying annually.
“So the potential is there, and here at Erbil, we are seeing that potential slowly being realised. The Kurdish people are widespread, in part due to many, many thousands being forced to flee the repression of the Saddam dictatorship. Communities of Kurds can be found in Scandanavia, the UK, Turkey and the US where Nashville and San Diego are two prime examples of major cities with a sizeable Kurdish population.
“Business in Kurdistan is booming, many countries have established consulates here, and a large number of NGOs have offices in Kurdish cities. We are also seeing the beginnings of tourism again.
“Kurdistan was always popular with our Arab neighbours to the south, but now people are coming from further afield, eager to see the country and its rich heritage. In the last twelve months, two luxury hotels have opened in Erbil and many more are expected to follow in subsequent years.”
Of course, developing aviation within Kurdistan and wider Iraq is not without its challenges. Unlike the Gulf States, Iraq does not subscribe to an Open Skies policy. All new routes and services are subject to approval from the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority and the limitations of whatever bi-laterals agreements are in place.
Iraq is also red flagged by the EU in respect of cargo exports and security at airports in the south, and despite the valiant efforts taking place there, will always be influenced by events in neighbouring communities and regions.
Security fears mean that the UK and a host of other European countries currently prohibit direct flights to Iraq. The fact that Iraq is still considered a war zone by many insurance companies doesn’t help, and is a cause of frustration in Kurdistan, where for the most part, life is dramatically ‘normal’.
Despite its rich heritage and its educated population, it will take time to develop Iraq’s infrastructure, not just in facilities but human capital too. The American withdrawal will see the country’s air traffic control operations handed over fully to the Iraqi CAA, and intense training and upgrading of skills have been taking place in recent months.
Estimates put the level of investment needed to fully upgrade Iraq’s airports and its national flag carrier at around the $50 billion mark. Though such numbers, given the difficulties in establishing their veracity, must always be treated with caution.
That said, there is no doubt that the country offers much potential to established international aviation practitioners and ancillary businesses. In Erbil for example, its master plan calls for development of MRO facilities and a focus in coming years on developing cargo and freight handling.
The KRG would hope, with the development of new refining facilities, to offer subsidised fuel to carriers, both passenger and cargo.
What is the appeal of Erbil and who is flying there? Point to point traffic and the capacity of Erbil traffic to supply long-haul routes via Istanbul, Abu Dhabi and other hubs is clearly a factor, as is the growing demand for travel to the region.
Oil and gas professionals, friends and family traffic and the growing popularity of Erbil as a centre for conferences all contribute.
Erbil is also growing in popularity as a Hajj departure point and enjoys traffic throughout the year for other religious pilgrimages.
The region’s rich history also appeals to tourists. Erbil’s Citadel, for example, is believed to date back to at least 6,000 BC, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited centres in the world.
Finally, its position on the old ‘Silk Route’ between East and West, is still relevant today.
But perhaps the last word should go to Erbil’s airport director, who was honoured earlier in the year at the Emerging Market Airport and Aviation Awards for her success in helping transform EIA into a fast developing commercial airport.
“Everyone at Erbil International Airport, with support from the KRG and in partnership with the Iraqi CAA, is determined to keep developing Erbil,” enthuses Faiq.
“Since September 2010, when the new terminal and facilities opened, progress has been rapid, but there is a long way to go. In the future we will be seeking international experts to help us develop and ensure that we reach the highest standards associated with international aviation.
“We want to develop the commercial potential of the airport and welcome new carriers, both passenger and freight, and realise the ambitions of our master plan.
“This is only the beginning, and like Kurdistan itself, the untapped potential is there to be realised.”