After the war
Mar 27th 2013, 18:41 by M.R. | Baghdad SECURITY at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) has come a long way since November 2003, when a cargo plane operated by DHL, a courier company, was struck by a surface-to-air missile shortly after take-off. No one was injured, despite the plane being forced into an emergency landing without hydraulic control and with its left wing on fire. In the following two months a couple of aircraft—this time military jets—were struck by missiles during take-off. Mercifully, both landed safely.
Nerve-jangling corkscrew manoeuvres which were once necessary to avert such incidents at BIAP are now a distant memory. Judging by the number of scheduled carriers that operate from the airport, confidence (and presumably passenger demand) is coming back. Almost all of the Middle East’s largest carriers now fly to Baghdad—Etihad, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Gulf Air and Air Arabia, to name a few—along with one plucky western carrier, Austrian Airlines. In March Iraqi Airways resumed flying from Baghdad to London after 23 years, albeit acquiescing to the insistence of Britain’s Department for Transport that it make a detour via Malmo, in Sweden, for extra security checks.
For business travellers, particularly those of western appearance, safety is the priority when deciding whether or not to brave it in Baghdad. Statistical evidence of improved security in Iraq—about 350 violent deaths are now reported each month, compared with 3,000 in 2006—do little to offset the emotional impact of isolated, but recurrent, mass-casualty attacks. Most recently, co-ordinated bombings on March 19th, the 10th anniversary of the American-led invasion, claimed 56 lives in Baghdad. Like the In Amenas hostage crisis in Algeria in January, such incidents are effective at warding off foreigners.
But security within BIAP is a far cry from the neighbourhoods that bear the brunt of insurgent attacks. Amid growing optimism about Iraq’s potential as a wealthy petro-economy, there are efforts to make the airport every bit the hospitable, business-traveller friendly stopover that one would expect in Europe or America—albeit within a fortress shielded from the city outside.
“The guys on the checkpoint facing the city deal with stuff all the time. But it doesn’t get any further,” one senior official at G4S, the Britain-based private-security firm responsible for the airport, told Gulliver in Baghdad. He noted that indirect mortar fire has fallen significantly since December 2011, which is when American troops completed their withdrawal from Iraq. “This feels like a safer airport than it did when the coalition was here,” he added.
Alongside G4S, a local partner, Al-Burhan Group (ABG), is also helping to normalise the outward appearance and inner experience of BIAP. Following the launch of Iraqi Airways’ London flights, ABG introduced a personalised service package for travellers on the route, essentially speeding up the process of moving through the airport. It also maintains the Al-Burhan Centre, which provides hotel-style accommodation for business travellers five minutes from the terminal building, but still within the multi-layered security perimeter. The centre sleeps more than 100 and features all the amenities of an airport hotel.
Back in the terminal, G4S is managing BIAP’s image as closely as its underlying security apparatus. “People arriving at Baghdad Airport will be reassured to see G4S staff here, because G4S around the world is what normal looks like,” the official said. “Baghdad Airport is now normal.” Having ambled through the arrivals and the departure lounges, Gulliver sensed a prima facie air of normality. There are no visible weapons within the terminal, in contrast, for example, to London Heathrow Airport where machine-gun-wielding marksmen intermingle with the crowds.
There is little evidence of a rise in footfall despite plans to double BIAP’s annual capacity to 15m passengers. For the moment, stability not expansion is the mantra. Just one of the airport’s three terminals, Nineveh, is currently used. On the freight front, an article in Air Cargo World warned that growing demand is being stifled by regulation. Even so, this autumn’s audit by ICAO, the UN’s aviation body, will seek to uphold BIAP’s compliance with international security standards. That, according to G4S, will be “one of the first steps on the road to being signed off post-conflict”. It would now be no bad thing if the airport’s success and stability spread to the surrounding city.
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