Monday, May 9, 2011

US sanctions and safety of air travel in Iran

Written by: Alan Dron

Affected by a generation of sanctions imposed by the United States that has prevented the sale of US airliners – and many European models – to Iran, its situation has been worsened in recent months by UN-mandated sanctions against Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. These have made it difficult for Iranian aircraft to refuel in several European nations.

The poor condition of the Iranian aviation industry is reflected in its accident rate. Over the past decade, Iran has suffered one of the world’s worst aviation records for crashes. Almost 20 military and civil transport aircraft have met with fatal accidents and the country’s civil air fleet is increasingly elderly and difficult to maintain.

It is a sad fall for a country whose national airline in the late 1970s was the world’s fastest-growing and was a customer for the Anglo-French supersonic Concorde. Indeed, the Iran Air offices in London’s Piccadilly still have a Concorde model in the company’s colours in the window, a poignant reminder of faded ambitions.

With its poor accident record – in autumn 2009 the Los Angeles Times cited an aircraft accident investigator who noted that 10 per cent of the entire global total of aircraft hull losses were Iranian – the country is increasingly mired in aviation problems. Much of the blame for this poor record is placed – particularly by the Iranian authorities – on a generation of US sanctions that has crippled sales of new aircraft and spares to the Islamic Republic.

Imposed after the fall of the Shah and the hostage-taking of US embassy personnel by the new Islamic government in 1979, they have been rigorously enforced by the US. Their effect has been felt not only by US airline manufacturers and spares companies, but also on non-US airframers whose aircraft contain more than 10 per cent US content by value. This effectively means that any aircraft powered by US-built engines cannot be sold to Iran.

This explains why Iran has become one of the last strongholds of the Dutch-built Fokker F100, whose Rolls-Royce Tay powerplants fall outside the terms of the embargo. Iran Air, for example, has a fleet of 16, while Iran Aseman Airlines has 20 and Iranian Air Transport, four. The Fokker 50 is popular for the same reason, but otherwise, Iranian airlines’ fleets tend to be composed of a heterogeneous mix of elderly, pre-sanction era Airbuses or Boeings.

As a result of their deteriorating condition, the European Union (EU) has imposed steadily tougher restrictions on Iranian aircraft entering EU airspace; in July last year the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, expanded restrictions on Iran Air, excluding its Boeing 727s and 747s, as well as its Airbus A320s, from the air lanes over Europe.

It described Iran Air as suffering “significant deficiencies” in managing airworthiness and maintenance issues, adding: “The company is failing to address the basics in terms of the continued airworthiness of its aircraft.
“In particular,” it added, “basic errors have been made in the maintenance programmes leading to significant omissions from the programmes for safety-related equipment on the Airbus A320 fleet and the Boeing 747-200 freighter.” The A320s were rated as particularly poor after a series of ramp checks at European airports.

The Commission acknowledged that Iran’s CAO had a strong commitment to adopting modern safety management techniques and that it had demonstrated an “open, co-operative and constructive approach” to addressing problems. However, these good intentions were insufficient to prevent increasing restrictions being imposed on Iranian aircraft operating to the EU.

In 2005, a report prepared for the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) said that by imposing the sanctions the US government and major US companies were ignoring international treaties and putting passengers on Iranian aircraft at risk. It added that some deaths and injuries in Iranian airliners could be at least partly attributed to the sanctions’ effects. ICAO checked the report for technical accuracy and bias, but neither endorsed nor rejected it.

In a statement it noted that its then president, Assad Kotaite, “always recognised the commitment of the US to ensure the safety of airline operations. When the US was convinced that safety was in jeopardy, they allowed spare parts to be delivered.” However, at the time both Boeing and General Electric said they had been seeking permission from the US Government to export safety-related spares to Iran, but had heard nothing for more than a year.

In Iran, meanwhile, several airlines such as Kish Air are getting around the sanctions by sourcing elderly MD82 and MD83 jets from third-parties. Iran Air Tours is also buying MD80s, in preference to earlier plans to buy Russian Tupolev Tu-204s. Although the Tupolevs would have been some 25 years younger than the MD80s, the Perm/Aviadvigatel PS-90 turbofans were deemed uneconomic to operate.

Iran has also sought to remedy the shortage of new aircraft by trying to build up an indigenous civil aerospace industry. The Ukrainian-designed Antonov An-140 is due to be built under licence as the IrAn-140, although after several years of preparation, just 14 have been completed, according to the Iranian transport minister in November 2010. An initial batch of eight is reported to have been brought into service to help replace the banned Tupolev Tu-154s, although the two types are scarcely in the same class. The Tu-154 tri-jet has a typical capacity of 164 passengers in single-class configuration, whereas the turboprop IrAn-140 can carry just 52.

According to some foreign observers, however, at least as much a problem as the US sanctions is the attitude of Iran’s CAO. Several have argued that modern precepts of air safety – openness, reporting and sharing of information – are badly lacking at the CAO. There have also been complaints from aviation professionals within Iran that unsafe airlines or incompetent pilots have been allowed to continue operating by exercising influence with senior government or CAO officials.

And, according to Mehdi Aliyari, the head of Iran’s professional association of air transport companies, regulators have also created pressure on the country’s airlines to cut corners. Speaking to the Iranian newspaper Jomhouri Eslami last summer, he said that government regulators kept domestic airfares artificially low and insisted airlines operated money-losing flights to small regional airports to keep local members of the Iranian parliament happy.

Pleas from airlines to be allowed to raise prices had gone unheeded, meaning carriers were short of cash. This eventually filtered down to areas such as maintenance, leading to corners being cut in an attempt to meet the unrealistic schedules. “When the government artificially keeps the price of air tickets fixed and airline companies’ warnings on raising ticket prices are ignored, air accidents are not implausible,” he told the newspaper.

Whatever the extent to which sanctions are responsible for the deteriorating state of Iran’s airlines, the situation seems certain to get worse before it gets better.

*This report was originally published under title of  "Iran fleet hits the crash barrier".  
Disclaimer: does not necessarily approve of views expressed by external authors in its reprinted pieces


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