For several years now, place cards bearing the title “Syrian Arab Airlines” have stood over empty seats at the annual meeting of the
Arab Air Carriers Organization (AACO).
Representatives from the Syrian national
carrier were listed as registered attendees,
but no one turned up to take their places
at the long tables where the 30-plus airlines
that make up AACO’s membership meet
annually to hear about the state of the industry in the Middle East and North Africa.
Syria has been wracked by a vicious civil
war since 2011.
However, at the AACO assembly in November
in Cairo, several senior managers of the national carrier—
usually known as SyrianAir—took their seats. Even more
surprising, the airline’s CEO made an impassioned plea for
AACO to stage its 2019 annual meeting in Damascus.
SyrianAir DG and CEO Talal Abdulkarim spoke with
ATW after his address. Speaking through an interpreter,
Abdulkarim said foreign media reports relating to damage to Syria’s airports had been overblown and that SyrianAir had never stopped flying throughout the conflict,
although its fleet had shrunk, consisting now of six Airbus
A320s—two of which are not operational because they
were damaged in an Israeli air raid—and a single A340.
“All our airports are safe and we can use them,” Ad-dulkarim said, adding that more than 85% of the country was back in government hands. Most of the main airports—Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia—were operational,
although Deir ez-Zor, in the center of the country, required
all of its ground servicing equipment to be renewed.
SyrianAir expects to be operational again during the
2019 first quarter.
Coping with sanctions
As well as the physical conflict, the airline has contended
with the effects of US and European Union (EU) sanc-
tions on the Syrian government, which ban the sale of
new airliners to the Middle East nation.
Te greatest impact of the sanctions has been the difficulty of overhauling the fleet and obtaining spare parts.
Abdulkarim noted, however, that SyrianAir technicians
and engineers were “highly rated” and the company had
bought a large quantity of spares from Airbus when it
purchased the A320s. He pointed to the company maintaining its annual IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA)
qualification as a sign of its technical competence.
If sanctions were lifted, “Frankly speaking, our interest
is to remain with the A320, because of the technical experience of our staff and the fact that our pilots are trained on
them,” he said. However, with the assumption that they
would not be removed any time soon, the airline has begun
negotiations with Russia’s United Aircraft Corp. (UAC) for
15 to 20 MC-21s, he said. If the order goes ahead, the MC-
21s will be delivered between 2022 and 2025.
“If the sanctions continue, we’re not going to surrender
and stop. We are going to search for different ways [to
obtain new aircraft] and one of those ways is going to
Russia,” Abdulkarim said.
He added there was no intention of following the
Iranian example of acquiring additional A320s through
Te carrier operates a small network based around
the Middle East—Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah in the
United Arab Emirates, Baghdad and Najaf in Iraq, Doha
(Qatar), Manama (Bahrain), Amman (Jordan), Algiers,
Kuwait City, Cairo and Khartoum (Sudan). Te single
longer-range destination is Moscow. Te A340, which
was acquired within the past year, does not operate the
Moscow sector. Rather, it operates the busiest routes—
Dubai and Sharjah, plus occasionally Manama and Kuwait City—where the extra capacity is needed.
Te Syrian market has taken a hit in recent years, but it
remains strong and substantially more aircraft will be required to service this growing demand, Abdulkarim said.
But if growth and progress are made this year, he won’t
be updating the AACO assembly in Damascus. Te 2019
event will be hosted by Kuwait.
carrier hopes to see
more normal service
restored in 2019.
BY ALAN DRON