Damascus: Three Arab carriers are negotiating a soft return to Damascus airport, civil aviation officials in the Syrian capital have told Gulf News. One is Jordanian, and two are Omani.
On January 24, a delegation from Jordan visited the airport, assessing safety regulations, security, and readiness to resume regular flights to and from Amman. The move came days after Jordan appointed a charge d’affairs in Damascus and four months after the Al Nassib border between the two countries reopened to cargo and travelers.
Royal Jordanian Airways CEO Stefan Pichler was recently quoted in the London-based Aviation Analyst as saying: “We want to fly to Syria; it’s a very important market for us.”
Royal Jordanian once had regular flights to Damascus and Aleppo and was among the last to withdraw from Syria in mid-2012. That decision was based on a security assessment, said Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi, adding that this could change if his country’s experts were assured the airport was in good shape.
“Members of the Jordanian delegation were extremely forthcoming” said an employee at Damascus airport, who asked to be identified by his first name only, Mudar. “They told us they miss Damascus and were eager to resume flights, saying many Jordanians would prefer a flight than taxi ride — which costs almost the same thing, no less than $200.”
One problem he said was the “lopsided treatment” adding that Syrians wanting to fly or drive to Jordan were required to obtain a security permit from Amman, while Syrian authorities demanded no such document. “Only Syrians with residency in a foreign country, or those who have been invited by a credible Jordanian company are allowed to fly to Amman. Ordinary Syrians cannot just pack their bags and go anymore.”
In the UAE, FlyDubai is mulling a comeback while Etihad and Emirates have both said that they are “monitoring” the situation and have requested briefing on the technical capabilities of Damascus Airport. UAE airlines are awaiting the decision of the GCC before any flights can be resumed. Before conflict started in 2011, Dubai was the number one destination for Syrians and Arabs flying from Damascus airport, said Mudar, via Emirates, which ran two flights a day to Damascus.
Bahrain’s Gulf Air has sent experts to assess the situation, he said, while Oman Air has been officially granted a licence to resume work in Syria, and so has its budget competitor Salam Air, which will start flights from Damascus to Muscat “hopefully February.”
“The Omanis are recruiting” said Ahmad Khalil Abu Dayeh, another employee at Damascus airport, who previously was a ticketing agent for the Russian carrier Aeroflot. Offices are being prepared for the Omani carriers, both at the airport and in Damascus city. “The salaries of Arab airlines were always higher than most private sector jobs in Damascus. They continue to be, and this can have a very positive effect on the job market.”
Before the conflict started, 400 weekly departures were registered at Damascus airport in 2010, to over 50 international destinations. A handful of international carriers operated regularly, including British Airways, Alitalia, Air Malta, Austrian, Iberia, Turkish Airways and Air France, which at one point had 5 flights from Damascus to Paris per week.
All walked out by mid-2012, as the security situation spiralled out of control, especially after the International Air Transport Association (IATA) warned airlines from flying over Syria, even at a height of 38,000 feet.
As the conflict progressed, a few regional airlines returned, like Sudan Airways and Iraqi Airways, in addition, of course, Iran Air. Lebanon’s national carrier, Middle East Airlines, continued to fly over Syria but has not landed at Damascus airport since 2012.
The Arab rapprochement with Syria was spearheaded by the UAE last December, which became the first Arab state to re-open its embassy in Damascus. It was soon followed by Jordan, and a state visit by Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir.