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Alex Macheras

Erbil and Baghdad work together to end Kurdish flight ban

The partial blockade on Erbil had been in place since the Kurdish independence referendum [AFP]

Date of publication: 21 January, 2018

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Analysis: Regional and national airspace officials end their dispute and help stabilise Iraq's aviation sector into the bargain, writes Alex Macheras.
Kurdish and Iraqi delegates this week had "a positive meeting" to determine the future for the Kurdish region's airline connectivity to the rest of the world.

Back in September 2017, tensions were at an all-time high between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government, after the KRG held a controversial referendum on independence - with Baghdad responding by imposing a form of air blockade on airports in the Kurdish region.

Baghdad banned all international flights to and from Erbil and Sulaymaniyah - the two main international airports in Northern Kurdish Iraq, home to airlines flying non-stop to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. 

The Iraqi government's immediate reaction to remove much-needed international air links from the Kurdish region shows an emerging pattern in the Middle East - whereby sudden aviation restrictions are used as tactics in geopolitical disputes. Kurdistan's minister of transportation refused to hand over Erbil and Sulaymaniyah airports to Baghdad, describing their decision as "a huge blow to the reputation of the civic aviation of Iraq".

Baghdad issued a NOTAM - a notice to flight crew - declaring the end of international flights with just around 48 hours notice, and international airlines rushed to squeeze in as many flights as they could, to and from the Kurdish region.

Reaching for the skies: Making Gulf airspace a virtual battleground damages regional aviation

Iraqi aviation is governed as one under the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority - despite Kurdistan's autonomous status, it does not have any sort of independent aviation authority, meaning airlines had no choice but to comply with Baghdad's ban. Lebanon's Middle East Airlines, among other airlines including Royal Jordanian and Qatar Airways, rushed to operate their final flights to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah before the ban came into full effect.

Middle East Airlines even increased their flights on the days immediately following Kurdistan's independence referendum, in order to ensure they did not leave behind any Lebanese citizen who wanted to leave the region.

The flight ban would go on to set back the entire country of Iraq in ways in which may not have previously been considered by the Baghdad government. Not only did it affect the lives of many people living in Kurdistan, but it added unnecessary complexities for the access of humanitarian aid, cargo and vital imports to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah - both hubs for military jets of the US-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State group.

Commercial airliners flying to Erbil or Sulaymaniyah would typically carry aid in the cargo hold, with vital imports that contributed to help ease one of the world's largest humanitarian crises on Earth, in nearby Syria. Instead, only certain cargo aircraft travelling from abroad would be permitted to land in Erbil or Sulaymaniyah, pending permission of the Iraqi government. Any cargo that would typically enter Erbil or Sulaymaninyah on passenger jets would now have to fly in on a dedicated cargo aircraft - immediately reducing the amount of aid flown to the region, with cargo averages plummeting from 2,500 tonnes, to less than 10 tonnes.
Similar to the ongoing Saudi-led air blockade of Qatar, the legality of Baghdad's flight ban was questioned


In October, one month after the ban, passenger numbers had fallen by 72 percent to 44,504, compared with 159,237 in the same period in 2016. Not only did this cause frustration to airlines suddenly faced with spare aircraft (not an attractive option to airlines, given aircraft are only ever able to make money when they are in the air), but Baghdad's own ban hurt their own airline, Iraqi Airways, with passenger numbers falling by 30 percent in the first four weeks alone.

Similar to the ongoing Saudi-led air blockade of Qatar, the legality of Baghdad's flight ban was questioned. Baghdad adheres to the UN aviation agency's (ICAO) rules of the skies, and while they are free to close the entire airspace of Iraq for the sake of security, under ICAO law, "closing part of the country's airspace because of the result of an independence referendum" wouldn't be seen as a valid justification.

However, as mentioned in earlier posts, while the theory of ICAO law is clear, enforcement becomes a grey area.

Here for the long-haul: How Qatar is beating the aviation blockade

Now in early 2018, the Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad have agreed to reopen the international airport links, as long as Erbil and Sulaymaniyah follow the directions of the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority - a fair compromise, given the international community and ICAO does not recognise Kurdistan as an independent state.

This is pretty standard practice for ICAO, who go as far as refusing to recognise Taiwan as an independent state, and apply their aviation laws to China and Taiwan as "one China" - despite Taiwan having their own international airline, EVA Air, and their own aviation industry.

Baghdad officials say the other terms of the deal would be for Erbil and Sulaymaniyah to work with the Baghdad government to provide full disclosure of airport revenue data, allow Iraqi safety officials to work at the Kurdish airports, and for monthly meetings to be held between the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority and Kurdish airport directors in order to ensure communication, and resolve potential problems.

The terms outlined form a seemingly fair offer from the Iraqi government, with the Kurdish region accepting - and flights set to resume in the near future.

If anything, Baghdad realises that air blockades are not sustainable, and do just as much damage to the blockading as they do to the blockaded. The positive meeting will contribute to efforts to help rebuild Iraq's aviation infrastructure, a country with firm airport expansion programmes for Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Nasriyah, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.

 

Alex Macheras is an aviation analyst, broadcasting on international networks including BBC News, Sky News and Al Jazeera. Macheras has covered the aviation side of the Gulf Crisis since June 2017.

Twitter: @AlexInAir

 

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