Monday, March 23, 2009

Basra airport ready for take-off

By Peter Grant
BBC News, Basra

For the past six years, most foreigners going to Iraq have packed boots and body armour.

But now there's a new uniform - a sharp suit and a briefcase. Increasingly, groups of business people are travelling to the country to discuss investment and development.

Most make their way to the capital Baghdad, and its administrative centre, the Green Zone, but there is an alternative.

The airport at Iraq's second city, Basra, is open for flights to various destinations in the region, and eleven airlines are using it. It gets between six and ten flights a day.

Until recently, it was mostly used by British forces, and was a neglected shadow of what it had been when it opened in 1987.

It was tattered and worn - full of long shadows and dark corners, and the floor was filthy. The gift shop displayed only a few boxes of uninviting sweets and some soft toys which looked distinctly sorry for themselves.

But now there's a fully-stocked duty free, with perfumes and luxury goods, and the gift shop has a range of cigarettes, toiletries and souvenirs.

The floor of the concourse is laid with gleaming brown and brown-grey granite. The woodwork and brass shine as, once more, do all of the illuminated signs. There's only one thing missing.

"The airport needs traffic", says its director, Mr Abdulameer Kanem Abdullah. "We are ready to move any amount of traffic. We have the lighting and facilities. We are just waiting for the passengers and aircraft".

But he's convinced they'll come. He says the new Basra business centre, near the airport, will help.

Group Captain John Gladston, who's been working with him, agrees. The RAF's 903 Expeditionary Air Wing has taken a mentoring role in the development of the airport, just as British troops have been training their Iraqi counterparts.

"Basra is the lily pad for the south", says Group Captain Gladston, pointing out how useful he feels it will be as a jumping-off point.

He thinks the airport can open up vital links for industry and commerce throughout the region, and prompt a return to manufacturing in and around the nearby port of Um Qasr which is Iraq's major entry and export point for heavy goods and oil.

Blank screens
That's the hope, but what of the reality? A glance around the comfortable, brown-furnished departure lounge shows a mix of nationalities. The boarding pass for my particular flight showed no flight or seat details, but no-one seemed concerned.

The departure screens are also blank, so it pays to listen for the shouted announcements, or watch for when fellow passengers start to move.

But the flight - in this case, to Amman, in Jordan - was punctual and smooth. For someone heading into or out of the region, it represents a very useful short-cut, saving at least half a day, and avoiding the teeming chaos that is Baghdad airport.

Basra will never be London Heathrow or Chicago O'Hare - nor does it aim to be. What those behind it - both Iraqis and British - hope is that it will soon become a busy provincial airport, playing its part in the regeneration of the region.

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