French airline makes landmark flight to Baghdad

BAGHDAD: A French airliner landed at Baghdad International Airport Sunday, becoming one of the first passenger planes to fly into the Iraqi capital direct from western Europe since the Gulf War and opening a potential new route to stronger international business ties.

The inaugural flight by France's Aigle Azur, which touched down shortly before 6 a.m. local time, carried French officials and journalists and was largely ceremonial. The airline won't begin regularly scheduled passenger flights for another two to three months, but if successful, the flights would mark an important milestone in Iraq's economic development.

"It will also be a chance, a new chance for the development of business between France and Iraq but more globally, between Europe and Iraq," said France's top trade official, Anne-Marie Idrac, who was on board the flight.

Some carriers, such as Austrian Airlines, fly from western Europe to the Kurdish city of Irbil. Regional airlines such as the Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, Bahrain's Gulf Air, the Beirut-based MEA airline and Turkish Airlines fly to the Iraqi capital.

But there are no direct passenger flights between Baghdad and western Europe. Stockholm-based Nordic Airways launched commercial flights to Baghdad from Copenhagen, Denmark, in January 2009 but its operating license was revoked later that month.

The lack of major European carriers flying to Baghdad shows the difficulties the country is having attracting major foreign investments in anything but the surest economic bets. Although some Western companies placed bids in the country's first round of oil licensing last year, it was only for the biggest and safest fields.

When the airline began planning the route about a year ago, they wanted to begin passenger service immediately after the inaugural flight, said the president of Aigle Azur's executive board, Francois Hersen. But there wasn't enough passenger interest, in part due to Iraq's political and security problems.

The country is in its eighth month without a new government after March 7 national elections failed to produce a clear winner. And violence, although much reduced, continues to claim lives.

Hersen said the airline is confident they'll have enough customers when flights start in earnest early next year.

Attempts by Iraq's national carrier, Iraqi Airways, to launch flights to London in April were swiftly quashed when lawyers for neighboring Kuwait tried to confiscate the inaugural plane upon landing in London to settle debts related to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The Aigle Azur flight, which took off late Saturday from Paris, carried a delegation of French business leaders planning to attend the Baghdad International Fair, an annual showcase designed to attract businesses to Iraq.

When regular flights begin early next year, the French airline plans to fly into Baghdad twice a week from Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport.

A ticket for one of the 124 economy seats will be about 1,500 euros, or $2,100. The 24 business class seats on the Airbus A319 will cost around 2,500 euros, or $3,500, each, Hersen said.

Aigle Azur is a French carrier operating out of Paris's Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports that mainly flies to locations in Africa such as Algeria, Mali, Morocco and Tunisia. They also operate flights to the French cities of Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Mulhouse and Toulouse.

The German carrier Deutsche Lufthansa AG was slated to begin regular flights between Munich and Baghdad Sept. 30 but canceled them due to a lack of customer interest.

The news was a blow to Iraq's hopes to reconnect Baghdad with international capitals since most Western airlines discontinued flights to the city after the 1991 Gulf War.

Many potential investors still view Iraq with trepidation.

"We are worried about security. We would not be able to come (to Iraq) by ourselves. The cost of security is too important to us," said a businessman on the flight, Lionel Cuenca, from the French company Gindre Duchavany, which specializes in copper products.

For years, many regional and Western carriers shied away from Iraq due to safety concerns. The few airlines that did fly in and out of the airport, formerly named after Saddam Hussein, performed a tight corkscrew when landing, a spiraling maneuver designed to protect them from missile attack. - AP

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