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DC and Tehran agree: "Don't Blame Us!"

22 Oct 2009 23:278 Comments

[ comment ] An Iranian blogger called the past few months "Iran's aviation black summer," and he might be right. In the course of one month, Iranian airlines had two fatal crashes. On July 15th, a TU 154 M belonging to Caspian Airlines flying from Tehran to Armenia crashed, killing everyone on board. One week later, an Aria Airlines IL-62 landing in Mashhad International airport in Northeast Iran went off the runaway and slammed into a perimeter wall; all 14 crew members and three passengers were killed instantly, including Mehdi Dadpay, Aria Airlines' CEO and a veteran pilot. A few days later, a Saha Airlines B-707 lost two of its engines while taking off. And a week after that, a training aircraft caught fire, and both the flight instructor and his student were killed.

Public trust in Iranian airlines and civil aviation authorities reached an all time low. Travel agencies sales dropped and passengers canceled their flights, preferring to travel by train or even bus through hazardous roads. Public outcry even reached the IRIB government apparatus. IRIB invited specialists and experts to comment on the root and the cause of airlines' misfortunes. Soon after, the blame game commenced: authorities blamed private airlines, private airlines blamed authorities, newspapers blamed the profit-seeking airline executives who sacrificed passengers' safety for their profits -- but all blamed the economic sanctions.

Since 1991, there have been 16 air crashes in Iran involving civilian commercial airlines and civilian passengers with fatalities; out of these, nine accidents involved Russian-made aircraft. This excludes all accidents involving military or training aircraft. In total, there has been 30 accidents involving civilian, military and training aircraft. In the summer of 2009 alone, 187 civilians were killed in air crashes.

The Iranian public watched bewildered by the tragedy that is Iran's commercial aviation industry and asked, "Why? What is wrong with our airlines?" They have every right to ask this question.

Although one can simply reply, "many things," it seems sanctions, mismanagement and perception are the menacing trinity. There is not one single airline executive or pilot in Iran who denies the role of sanctions.

"We have nothing updated or standard anymore," said a civilian pilot with 5,000 flight hours, who shrugged when he spoke about the situation caused by sanctions. "This [situation] is because of sanctions, you cannot talk about a solution as long as sanctions exist."

Iranian aviators, once the best trained corps in the whole region, have a high regard for western aircraft and technology, on which they had been originally trained. However they had to adapt themselves to Eastern bloc technology, particularly Russian-made aircraft, due to sanctions.

"Do you think I do not want to fly a Boeing?" another pilot asked rhetorically. "I [would] switch in a heartbeat, but we cannot go after our dream airplanes. We have to use what is available, and that is these Tupolovs and Illiyoshins."

Sanctions have hurt Iranian aviation on many different levels, forcing a fleet of aging commercial airplanes into service beyond their retirement age. First, new planes are not available because of sanctions; second, foreign investment is denied for the same reason; third, it is impossible to have necessary parts and services for maintenance of the existing fleet because of US-led sanctions. Iranian airlines are therefore forced to rely on Russian-made airplanes because nothing else is available. Sanctions have increased Iranian airlines' expenses and risks of operation. However, their problems do not end there.

While sanctions deny Iranian airlines access to resources and the global market, they face increasing demands from their customers, government officials, and competition from growing Middle Eastern airlines. On one side, many government officials perceived commercial aviation services as a sign of economic development. Members of parliament have pushed civil aviation authorities to have direct flights between their constituent cities and metropolitan areas of the country. In their turn, civil aviation authorities put the pressure on private airlines to operate these unattractive routes, where passengers are few, flights are not economically justifiable, and airplanes have to fly practically empty.

The Iranian government is well known for interfering in the day-to-day economic activities of the country; however nowhere else is this interference felt as much as in aviation. Here, government grants the license, owns and runs the airports, sells the airlines fuel for their aircraft, controls the major banking and financing resources, and has the authority to deny or to approve every single flight on any given date. Iranian airlines have to be very flexible because besides flying the blue sky of Iran they have to navigate the dark and foggy labyrinth of its bureaucracy as well.

At the end of the day, few are ready to accept responsibility for the current status of Iranian aviation while many are eager to conceal the reality and to offer a partial picture of the true state of Iranian aviation to protect their positions or business interests. In the absence of a transparent business environment, rumors are in high demand and supplied in astonishing magnitude. After this past summer of accidents, some Iranian officials blamed Aria Airlines' deceased CEO for the accident and operating an IL 62 while simultaneously telling reporters that there was nothing wrong with the aircraft itself or Iran's civil aviation's evaluation process. The accidents prompted then-chief of Iran Civil Aviation Organization to ban airlines from acquiring any further Russian aircraft. However, no one asked why the 14 accidents before this summer never prompted them to accept a similar measure, or why they have approved an increasing number of Russian aircraft to operate in Iran.

In their lack of accountability, these authorities are not alone. On this side of the Atlantic Ocean, where the very idea of sanctions was conceived, many are unwilling to accept that sanctions against Iranian civil aviation have cost innocent Iranian lives. Last September, when the Los Angeles Times printed a misinformed article on the state of Iranian civil aviation shifting the blame to Iranian mismanagement, one could have heard the sighs of relief in Washington.

"Don't blame us," seems to be a refrain used both in DC and Tehran with the same frequency.

For last thirty years, Iranian aviation society has done its best to adapt itself to conditions imposed by sanctions and to respond to demands placed on it by internal pressures. However, it seems Iranian airliners are running out of options, even though some of them take extreme measures and do literally whatever they can to ensure flight safety and satisfactory operations.

One Aria pilot told me, "Our CEO, Captain Mehdi Dadpay who was killed himself, flew with most of the flights just to be there, to be sure. Sometimes he flew eight legs of daily routine although he was almost 70 years old himself. And when we told him that he shouldn't, he simply would say, 'I rather be here just in case.'"

It is most regrettable that even such high regard for one's responsibilities did not prevent the tragic accidents and loss of life this past summer.

In the presence of such a high price in human lives maybe it is time for those who have been advocating sanctions against Iran's civil aviation to face facts and to see the situation as it is. Yes, it is true that the Iranian civil aviation industry does not benefit from an exemplary management style or most the caring regulatory approach. However, the dreadful truth is that this industry is suffocating because of sanctions. And the price is being paid by innocent lives.

Photo credit: Grant Powers

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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8 Comments

yes thats true i know there is no right management in iran or other problems but that does not mean that sangtions are not the reason that inocent people are being killed.plz do smt if u want to harm the gaverment thats not gonna happen like this just inocent people will die

anahita / October 23, 2009 3:33 AM

This is americans fault -- they have done this to Iran.

Radical Guy / October 23, 2009 4:55 AM

Shame on the US. If you need to set an embargo, find one that doesnt murder plane passengers!

Amir / October 23, 2009 9:09 AM

Iran is in the process of receiving half a dozen secondhand Airbus jetliners from a Chinese airline. So an effort is being made.

It really is reprehensible to deny a country civil aviation parts for planes already purchased. But hey, we're talking about the same people in power that imposed sanctions on another Middle Eastern country that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children.

And if they didn't keep Iran's civilian airliners grounded, they shot them out of the sky (Iran Air Flight 655).

Pirouz / October 23, 2009 9:31 AM

Given the US sanctions, why hasn't Iran replaced its American aircraft over the years? And what do US sanctions have to do with the state of the Russian airplanes that keep crashing in Iran?

Does Russia have as many accidents with its own aircraft at home? Who in the Iranian government has the Russian account? Someone must be pocketing huge commissions from buying this junk.

Why doesn't Iran retire unsafe planes and cut the flights instead of risking people's lives and then blaming someone else?

Stop the sanctions blame game. The Iranian government is to blame for the decision to fly old and unsafe aircraft in the first place.

mahasti / October 23, 2009 11:12 PM

Demand for flying has been increasing, besides sanctions do not include only American airplanes, but all airplanes with more than a certain level of American parts, or American companies involvement. Thus Iran cannot buy Airbus or even advanced Russian aircraft with American parts.

Ali / October 24, 2009 6:22 AM

you're right, this industry is suffocating because of sanctions.
However, I do blame Iranian government for its irresponsible behavior.
I lost my uncle in the first crash. This plane had serious technical problems and the Caspian Airlines was fully aware of its situation.
So why didn't they cancel the trip?
It this because of US sanctions?
Please let's face facts, the real ones.

Alyoshkine / October 24, 2009 10:14 AM

I personally don't want to play blame game but we all as well as Iranian government accept that there is a serious problem in Iranian civil aviation and flying affected planes will not solve it.

Unsafe/defective airplanes are not solely dangerous to their occupants, imagine an airliner with the size of an Airbus A320 with 30,000 liters of Jet Fuel on board crashing into a overcrowded elementary school or a hospital.

If you admit there is a problem airplanes should remain grounded until solution is found.

Aryajet / October 26, 2009 4:07 AM