Since Hong Kong we’ve tried to avoid flying in an attempt to sustain the somewhat romantic notion that we’re really traveling the Silk Road. We’ve made exceptions when overland travel isn’t safe (Pakistan/Iran border) and when the distance between stops, and time to travel between them are just too damn large to bare (I’m looking at you, China).
Our flight from Shiraz to Mashhad met neither of these exceptions. But sanctions have effectively frozen Iran’s civil aviation in the 1980s and I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to add a little vintage to my tally of aircraft flown. We flew on an ATA Airlines MD82, a narrow-body stalwart of the 1980s with engines mounted at its tail and wings far back as a result.
In most senses it felt like a pretty normal flight. The existence and contents of the inflight meal was probably the biggest nod to another time of flying. I’m pretty sure that roll was from the 1980s. We made what seemed to be a u-turn on the Shiraz tarmac, and took a very long time to roll to a stoop in Mashhad, but I’ve really no clue as to whether either peculiarity was due to the aging aircraft that we flew.
Thee normalcy of our flight, and the hundreds like it in Iran every day, on aircraft that anywhere else would be passed their used by date is a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of Iranian industry. Other heavily sanctioned states (Cuba and North Korea) have turned to Russian manufacturers. Iran tried that, but when the Tupolevs kept crashing they decided to stick to the western stuff. Now they use a rag tag collection of aircraft that were flying when sanctions first hit in 1979, or second hand metal they’ve managed to finagle despite tight restrictions on international finance. There’s a story about some ex-Qantas 747s being flown all over the globe before landing in Iran, just to put sanctions enforcers off the scent.
There are at least six carriers with serious domestic schedules and, excepting Japan, Iran probably has one of the densest use of wide-body aircraft for in-country hops of anywhere in the world. Pilgrimage flights to Mashhad are especially common – four others left in the hour we did from Shiraz – and charters seem to be used to circumvent government regulated fares.
A couple of carriers fly internationally too. Iran Air is still routing its classic 747s into Asia, and A300s into European capitals. When they arrive at some European airports they’re not allowed to refuel so they have to make intermediate stops. For a while it was all airports in the EU. Then authorities got jealous of refuellers in Belgrade and Minsk and decided some EU airports were okay. This seems symbolic of the larges sanctions plan: make a nuisance of yourself so long as it doesn’t cost you.
Negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme – now the main motivation for sanctions – are on going. Some progress was made recently and some Iranian funds frozen overseas were released. Replacement parts and training manuals were on the approved shopping list. This is good news for Iranian flyers. If progress continues the real prize – sanctions lifted and new aircraft – could be in sight.
An Iranian aviation executive claims that when the sanctions eventually end there’ll be an immediate market for four hundred new Boeing and Airbus jets. That is a huge amount – Airbus only turns out about 600 aircraft a year. I’ve no doubt that the economic boost from sanctions ending in Iran will be massive. And flying ancient aircraft is expensive so replacing them quickly could be sensible. But I’m still sceptical of the four hundred. Iranian civil aviation still appears highly regulated – fares and timetables set by government. If they really want their industry to fly, they’re going to need to knock that off and let competition and innovation emerge. Dreams of competing with the Gulf carriers and probably just that.
Back in the day Iran Air was one of the most respected carriers in the world. Its safety record matched Qantas’. It ordered special jets from Boeing to fly nonstop to the US, then the longest flight in the world. My hope is that it’ll be back in New York with a shiny new aircraft soon, marking the end to forty years of severely constrained civil aviation.