Kurdistan's Zagrosjet takes off from Erbil despite the battle against IS and political wrangles with Baghdad
ERBIL, Iraq - As the CEO of Kurdistan’s very first airline, Zagrosjet, Moffak Hamad is dedicated to investing every minute of his workdays into making this project a symbol of success for the region. However, he finds himself spending most of his time caught up in the political punchup between Erbil and Baghdad.
From his desk at Zagrosjet’s headquarters, situated in Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil, Moffak Hamad is sitting by a shelf stacked with model airplanes. Today, the company he runs has just one aircraft and leases another. But Hamad is working hard to boost Zagrosjet to the next level by cooperating with flagship airlines and getting to fly to regions that require high standards of safety regulations, such as the European Union.
'We have no sea and at times, we feel suffocated by our turbulent neighbours'
He has more than just his own company's best interests in mind. With Zagrosjet, the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region is attempting to take greater control over its own airspace.
Although Zagrosjet has done some charter flights over the past 10 years, it was only three years ago that it was recognised as Kurdistan’s own airline. According to Hamad, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) now finally understands the vital importance of having its own national airline.
"We have no sea and at times, we feel suffocated by our turbulent neighbours," he explains. "We need our airspace in order to breathe."
A flight attendant is giving a client a meal (Photo courtesy of Zagrosjet)
The airspace has proven to be essential to Iraqi Kurdistan in solidifying its international relations. As the operations to liberate Mosul are underway, Hamad remembers the frightening days of summer 2014 when the Islamic State (IS) group was just outside the main capital Erbil. Back then, Zagrosjet played a role in maintaining an international lifeline.
“All consulates here had their evacuation plans with us because no foreign airline would fly here if there was an emergency," Hamad says. "If it wasn’t for us, the consulates would have all closed."
Taking back Kurdish airspace
Nevertheless, the recognition Zagrosjet gets is limited and the airline had to be built from scratch. "No one had any knowledge of aviation. And even now I would say only a handful in the government has any working knowledge of the field."
Interrupted by one of the many short phone calls Hamad receives, he then points up to the sky and proceeds with some dark humour. "I would tell anyone who does not yet believe in our aviation project that they should think again. We Kurds knew planes before we even knew cars," he says, referring to Saddam Hussein’s warplanes.
'Baghdad can just decide to close the airspace at any given moment. Not only does this cause us financial damage, but it also affects our credibility as a reliable carrier'
Back in those days, the warplanes circling the region reminded Kurds that their lands were essentially not theirs. But with the establishment of a no-fly zone after the Gulf war, Kurdistan made its first steps towards autonomy.
Though the Iraqi Kurdistan region is autonomous, it is not fully independent, so the region and therefore its airspace officially belongs to Iraq. As a result, Zagrosjet must get Baghdad's authorisation for every take-off and landing.
"For every take off and landing, we need permission," Hamad says. "Moreover, they can just decide to close the airspace at any given moment. Not only does this cause us financial damage, like it did in the past, but it also affects our credibility as a reliable carrier."
In addition to that, Zagrosjet does not benefit from the advantages that most local airlines around the world get from their governments. The airline even pays more for fuel than Iraqi airways does, whereas local carriers often pay deducted taxes in their home country. Zagrosjet has not been afforded this benefit.
The KRG is dependent on bilateral agreements which the Iraqi government closes with destinations abroad. Within those agreements, priority for flight slots goes to the Iraqi national carrier. What remains can be used by Zagrosjet, with permission.
Hamad says he endlessly makes phone calls to Baghdad. But most of the time the result only leaves him with a headache. "I would be on the phone with exciting news, like we got permission to fly to a new region,"’ he says "but then I would blatantly get a no from the authorities. It’s frustrating."
'We have to be perfect, we cannot make mistakes'
Hamad works closely with Erhan Unal, the commercial director of Zagrosjet. Some time ago Unal moved from Istanbul to Erbil, to take the next step in his career in aviation; a business he says he has always felt drawn to because of its dynamic, fast-paced nature.
His work with Zagrosjet has indeed been exciting, as well as challenging. "We cannot afford to make any mistakes," he says. "We have to be perfect, even better than perfect."
Mr Moffak Hamad, CEO of Kurdistan’s very first airline, Zagrosjet, on board a Zagrosjet airplane (Photo courtesy of Zagrosjet)
The 90-strong staff of Zagrosjet works hard to keep up to date with local aviation rules, in order to get their license renewed from Iraq every year. "If a procedure we use breaches local regulations, they could decide we have to stop," says Unal.
Their hard work in the past few years has paid off. Zagrosjet now cooperates with high-quality mainstream airlines like Turkish Airlines and flies to Iraq, Turkey and Sweden. The KRG has friendly relations with Ankara, with energy and security cooperation developing strongly in recent years.
Boom to bust
But the future Hamad and Ünal envisage for Zagrosjet is even bigger. Until an economic crisis hit the Iraqi Kurdistan region in 2014, its flourishing businesses were so prosperous that the main capital Erbil was projected to become a new Dubai.
As negotiations resume to reclaim the KRG’s share of Iraq’s budget, and Iraqi Kurdistan is taking back territory from IS, Erbil businesses are slowly raising hopes that the city will once again aspire to become an economic hub in the Middle East.
'We are proud to say that our regulations have been approved by the United Kingdom, which would be necessary for us to start flights to London'
One thing Iraqi Kurdistan definitely gained throught the battle with IS is strengthened international relations with global powers. The international cooperation established to defeat IS and widespread media coverage of the Peshmerga has not only given Iraqi Kurdistan international exposure, but also recognition.
Aiming to gain grounds worldwide, Zagrosjet is set to meet international aviation standards. "We follow European Union rules, as the local Iraqi rules do not include passenger rights: procedures in case of delays and lost luggage and so on," Ünal says.
"We are proud to say that our regulations have been approved by the United Kingdom, which would be necessary for us to start flights to London." Unfortunately, due to the continuous instability in the region, the new flight path to London has been postponed.
In spite of the difficulty in establishing a successful airline in such a tense geopolitical region, seated at his desk at Zagrosjet headquarters, with his left hand steady by the phone, Hamad seems battle-hardened and determined to steer Kurdistan’s first airline towards a prosperous future.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.