By Kamil Tchorek
Domestic flag carrier LOT Polish Airlines has commenced operation of a passenger service from Warsaw to the southern Iraqi city of Basra. The announcement came three days after the destruction of the UN headquarters in Baghdad by a suicide bomber, and the subsequent withdrawal of IMF and World Bank officials from Iraq.
Flight LO169, which leaves Okęcie Airport on Wednesday August 27 at 5:35 a.m., and stops in Beirut for refueling, will be the first civilian flight to Iraq by a non-Middle Eastern airline since the invasion of Kuwait in 1991.
Two weeks ago, the U.S.-led administration in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), awarded seven international airlines the right to service Basra's airport. The process started in July, when more than 20 companies applied to fly into Baghdad. The CPA has decided to open Basra instead, due to "guerilla warfare" around the capital. LOT was one of three airlines outside the Middle East, alongside British Airways and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), to win the right to service the route. SAS will start on Friday.
An official statement from LOT states the prime reason for the initialization of the route as "Warsaw's geographical location," which is strategically placed to "transit passengers to Iraq from eastern and western Europe, the Baltic countries and even North America." There is no indication that U.S. airlines will be servicing the route in the near future.
By contrast, British Airways is not as yet taking advantage of their rights to the route, stating that "the security of our customers, staff and operation is absolutely paramount and we will fly to Iraq only once we are confident that it is safe for us to do so."
Security concerns are causing other airlines to waver as well. "Although SAS is scheduled to start flights on Friday, we are re-considering the safety of the route," said Maja Koros, a representative of SAS. "An SAS delegation went to Basra last weekend to assess the operational and security situation. We will see at the start of (this) week whether the delegation has decided to suspend the route."
BA and SAS have legitimate cause for concern. Earlier this month, a Russian-built Igla surface-to-air missile was seized after being smuggled into the U.S. It was intended to be used by terrorists to target civilian aircraft. Russia exported these weapons throughout the 1980s, and military analysts fear that there are many waiting to be used in Iraq. In May, another missile was fired at a U.S. military jet taking off from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, but missed.
"We have a written 100 percent safety guarantee from the (U.K.) Royal Air Force who patrol the skies around Basra Airport," said Andrzej Kozłowski, a spokesman for LOT Polish Airways. "The RAF says it is safe to fly into Basra. If there was the slightest indication that it was unsafe to fly, we would immediately withdraw the route. Our position is that the recent attacks are not an implication that it is unsafe to travel to Iraq."
LOT officially acknowledges that, in their choice to run the route, "it is not insignificant" that Polish companies will be involved in the reconstruction of Iraq as well as the day-to-day running of the south-central Iraq zone under Polish military command.
A number of Polish companies, mostly from the construction and energy sectors, are vying for lucrative tenders for the reconstruction of Iraq. Political analysts speculate that the CPA's decisions will continue to be biased towards nations that paid a blood price in Operation Iraqi Freedom, spelling opportunity for Polish outward investment.
LOT has released impressive results for the first half of 2003. Passenger numbers increased by more than 9 percent over the same period last year, making LOT an industry exception. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), passenger transport for the whole world during the first half of 2003 was down 7 percent on the equivalent period last year. The largest declines were in the American market (down 11 percent) and the Far East (down 15.6 percent). In Europe, passenger numbers were down by 1.1 percent. The only growth areas were South America (up 9.3 percent) and the Middle East (up 5 percent).
The aircraft to be used on LOT's Basra route is a Boeing 727-300, which will make the round trip on Wednesday of each week. Two-way fares start at zł.3,595.16 (€825). There were still seats available on the inaugural flight as of press time.
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