A very special airport

Posted: 11 April 2011 | Talar Faiq Salih, Airport Director, Erbil International Airport | No comments yet

Security, progress, economic growth, achievement – these are all words, that sadly, many throughout the world have yet to associate with Iraq, but my hope is that when you have read through this article I may have changed your mind. In turn, you may, if you wish, quietly reprimand yourselves for not looking beyond popular caricatures of Iraq, and Kurdistan in particular.

Erbil international Airport sits 7km from the centre of the modern and growing principal city of Kurdish Iraq, Erbil. The city itself is one of the world’s oldest centres of urban development stretching back more than 7,000 years.

In 2010 Erbil International Airport (EIA) welcomed 454,600 departing and arriving passengers. This number, though small by international standards, represents a 178% increase on passenger traffic in 2006.

 For those not familiar with the region and the degradations that oppression, war and sanctions have wrought in recent times, they may be tempted to dismiss such an achievement as quaint, a mere bagatelle, a drop in the ocean. To those, I would urge caution, numbers, as always, do not tell the whole story.

On July 1 2003 General Patraeus signed papers handing over the military coalition’s air facilities to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The airport had been built by Saddam’s military in 1971 and was a means of oppression until its abandonment in 1991/2. It is indeed an irony that what was once a means of oppression is now a means to development, of the economy, of tourism and our social links across the world.

In late 2003, the Al-Ba’th regime fell. The regional government commissioned the development of an interim civilian facility and whilst that work was underway its strategic intent became clear when, in 2004, Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, commissioned UK architects Scott Wilson to develop design concepts for a new, larger civilian facility, with associated cargo and logistics support.

Work commenced on construction with Turkish firm Makyol Cengiz in 2005. That year, IATA approved the new interim facilities and airfield, awarding the EBL code to the new airport. The ICAO code is ORER. The first scheduled flights commenced to and from Erbil in late 2005 with Iraqi Airways. Austrian Air and Royal Jordanian followed in early 2006. In its first full year of operation 163,619 passengers used the airport.

The airport itself is designed to accommodate in the region of three million passengers per annum – it is a 16 gate facility, with six fixed air bridges. At 4,800 metres, the runway is the fifth largest in the world, capable even in the height of the summer, of accommodating the world’s heaviest planes.

The airport features a dedicated VIP terminal and separate lounge and check in facilities for Diwan customers.

As of February 2011-13, carriers served 23 international and domestic destinations with Frankfurt and Dubai the largest of the international hubs. Passenger and cargo traffic looks set to continue its exponential growth with a 44% increase in January 2011 compared to 37,807 passengers in January 2010.

Currently visa restrictions and ticket prices are holding back demand, but both in bound tourism and business travel are increasing monthly. Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Malaysia are the only countries allowing entry without a prior visa for Iraqi passport holders and of those, the Middle East destinations feature strongly on the list of busiest routes.

Much has been made of security issues in Iraq but in the north of Iraq, controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government, there have been very few incidents in the last several years. The UK’s FCO has no travel warnings for Erbil and Kurdistan, though does warn against straying too close to the Iranian border, for obvious reasons. At the airport stringent security is imposed to deter and prevent attacks – checks are made on all vehicles prior to entry to the airport estate and both passengers and those greeting arriving passengers are required to disembark. Passengers and baggage are scanned before being allowed through to buses for the trip to the airport. Special arrange – ments for VIP’s and business travellers are available. In all, three searches are made, at entry to the airport estate, on arrival at the terminal prior to check in, and again, for hand baggage, at the departure lounge, prior to enplanement.

It causes some amusement but also frustration to Kurds that the outside world fails to distinguish between the difficulties further south in Iraq and the successful application of security controls in Kurdish areas.

It is as a result of thorough security that the economy of the region is flourishing. Stability has brought opportunities for investment. The approximate size of Switzerland, or the Netherlands, Kurdistan is home to around 4.5m people. Erbil itself is in the midst of a construction boom with hotels, offices, apartments and villa developments springing up around the capital. In 2010 the KRG’s Investment Board reported the commencement of projects worth around $4.6bn. Of which construction took the lions share, but with trade, $948m and the industrial sector, $1.13bn, taking their share too. In all, the board indentifies projects worth $17.3bn, of which nearly 25% is supported by foreign investors. Of course, you cannot talk about the region and its airport without making mention of oil and gas. The KRG has been active in encouraging foreign companies to invest in exploration in the region and thus far around 25 companies have entered into profit sharing agreements. Today production stands at around 100,000 barrels per day, by 2014, and that number is likely to rise tenfold to more than 1m bpd. The revenues from such production are shared by the Iraqi government under a deal struck in 2005, when the present federal style Iraqi constitution was agreed. With around 17% of the population, the Kurdish Regional Government can expect a similar proportion of profits to invest in infrastructure, education facilities, hospitals and associated health facilities.

Much is made in the aviation industry of an airports role as an enabler or ‘multiplier’. There is the much quoted Bruckner equation – 10% increase in passenger enplanement equates to a 1% increase in employment in the service sector.

There is no doubt in my mind, as Airport Director and the one responsible for overseeing the KRG’s largest infrastructure project to date, at $450m, that the airport is playing a vital catalytic role as good aviation links impact across the whole spectrum of economic activity. This in turn will lead to increased living standards, which in time will improve the outlook not only in Kurdistan but wider Iraq as well.

Erbil, 7000 years old and counting, is one of the ‘Silk Routes’ ancient cities. Its position remains as relevant today, as it has been in centuries gone past. EIA’s strategic objectives include a huge focus on cargo and logistics expansion. Not only do we want to be the ‘gateway’ to Kurdistan, but to wider Iraq and surrounding countries as well.

Current capacity at Erbil is in the region of 280,000 tonnes per annum. The arrival of Etihad’s new A330 cargo, twice weekly, and a 777 Emirates cargo service, again twice weekly, can only boost total tonnage. I anticipate a near doubling of 2010’s 10,600 tonnes in the course of 2011.

In late April, EIA will host Iraq’s first Cargo and Logistics Conference in Erbil. The potential is huge, given the geography, the security we can offer, and quick turn around times. In time, I would hope Erbil can become an important cargo hub for the whole of the Middle East, sitting as it does on the ‘Silk Route’.

Commercial development is a vital component amongst our strategic objectives and is one we are investing in. I am confident it will pay dividends. Of course our starting point is security and safety – something we have in common with most airports around the world. That we face different challenges from others is true, but we bring resources and a determination to succeed borne of experience.

In my role as Airport Director, I am mindful too that we must build a core of trained and competent Kurdish/Iraqi staff in the coming years. We invest much in training and development, sending staff overseas and benefiting from an in house team of 20 plus Koreans from Incheon, who via a Government agreement, provide EIA with support and expertise.

To such long-term objectives I would add several more – putting Erbil on the map and ‘centre front’ in the drive to modernise and develop the aviation industry in Iraq. There are those who claim some $50bn is lined up to be invested in aviation in the country. I take a more conservative view on that number but do think that given our population, where we are coming from in terms of infrastructure, and an improving economy, that air travel both within Iraq and beyond it by its citizens will be an important market for the regions carriers to tap into. In the case of Erbil, the kurdish disapora is spread throughout Europe and North America, and increasingly, as prosperity grows, air travel for both business and family reasons become within reach for many more citizens.

We at EIA continue to work closely with the regional government to press the case for further liberalisation of air space and routes to ensure aviation can continue to be a stimulus for growth across the country.

Since 2005 and the opening of a civilian airport at Erbil we have come a long way. Yes, there is more to do, but in 2011, we hope to lead the growth curve across the Middle East as passenger and cargo numbers increase.

You will find Erbil the city, vital and confident. Secure and on the brink of significant growth as investment in the economy, our infrastructure, schools, universities and hospitals begins to bear fruit. I suspect there are few places in the world that can report such progress in so short a period of time. 454,600 passengers may not register for some, but to my colleagues and I, it represents a solid beginning and promises much for the future.

In an industry where we rely so strongly on numbers, the emergence of Erbil International reminds us that by themselves, they do not tell the whole story.

About the Author

Talar Faiq Salih took up her role as Airport Director at Erbil International Airport in August 2010. In her previous role, which commenced in 2009, as deputy director, Ms Salih had been responsible for overseeing the operational readiness process for the commissioning of the new airport facilities at the airport.

Her career began with Iraqi Airways before moving to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) where she played a key role in assisting the humanitarian effort to relieve the effects of sanctions. Ms Salih was a key member of the local staff and stayed with the UN in a variety of roles for nearly ten years before moving to the UK to support the growing Kurdish community there. It was in this role that Ms Salih represented the Kurdish community on many occasions with various Government agencies, the Refugee Council, and the UK press and media, explaining the plight of the people who had fled Saddam’s regime and championing their cause.

From her base in the West Midlands of the UK and the growing Kurdish community there Ms Salih made her move to London where she took up a role at the International Organisation for Migration, (IOM). In 2008 Ms Salih joined the office of the Kurdistan Regional Government mission to the UK capital. Taking up a role as a member of the mission she worked with senior officials of the KRG to liaise with the UK Government and members of Parliament. Ms Salih once again played a key role in championing the needs of the Kurdish people and ensured that Kurdistan stayed firmly on the agenda.