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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 April 2006, 21:35 GMT 22:35 UK
Future of Basra airport takes off
By Lisa Mitchell
BBC News in Basra, southern Iraq

Night-time visitors to Basra International Airport must don flak jackets and helmets for landing.

Lights and air conditioning are turned off and the approach is steep and fast to avoid potential surface-to-air missiles.

Basra firemen
Airport firemen who used to work in t-shirts show off their new kit

But during the day, tourists and businessmen check in and wait in departures like any international travellers.

The airport is still under British military control, but step by step it is moving into the hands of the Iraqi aviation authority.

Last month a record 73 commercial flights landed there.

That's already more than pre-war times. Between wars and sanctions, there was often only two flights a week carrying one passenger - a certain Mr Hussein.

But now, despite a desperate security situation in the nearby city, the airport is taking on the appearance of a civilian airport.

Built in 1989 on the site of a smaller 1960s airport and in Saddam's inimitable style, its terminal is clad in wall-to-wall marble.

It survived remarkably intact during the 2003 invasion, with just the air control tower damaged by bombing.

Basra airport
Military planes still dominate at Basra but the skyline is changing

The 13,000ft German-built runway was unmarked and it soon became a base for British forces.

The British are still there, providing crucial fire cover for the air space around it.

Ever since a surface-to-air missile hit a DHL cargo plane at Baghdad airport, the possibility of such an attack on Basra has been taken seriously.

Hence the precautions for military aircraft coming in under the cover of darkness. But despite the threat, confidence is growing in civilian usage.

Before the war, Basra was the most important city in Iraq because of the oil - we had many hotels and tourists
Air traffic controller

In December and January 5,000 passengers going to the Haj travelled from Basra. Iraqi Airways, Royal Jordanian and DHL are regularly in and out, raising landing fees for the aviation authority.

There is now a separate entrance to the grand terminal for passengers, and the military - including 70 Air Squadron Iraqi Air Force and its 10 planes - have retreated to the other side of the airfield.

All air traffic control during the daytime is in the hand of Iraqis, some of whom worked at the tower before the war but have retrained to deal with the increased traffic.

Identification fear

Like most locals working with the coalition, they did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, but they are positive about the airport's future.

As with everything in the region, much depends on improved security, acknowledges Ali, who has been a controller for 26 years.

"When it is quiet, we will be able to develop rapidly.

"Before the war and sanctions, Basra was the most important city in Iraq because of the oil. We had many hotels and tourists visiting shrines.

"Now some tourists are coming from the north of Iraq. We need it to happen for Basra but the security needs to come first."

The British and the Iraqi central government believe the airport is key to the economic regeneration of the whole southern region.

Increasing cargo flights is crucial, but difficult at present because civilian flights cannot land at night.

Abdul Aman Mansor
I hope it will become so safe the British will come to Basra
Fireman Abdul Aman Mansor

The neglected lighting system needs serious investment to get it up to international aviation standards.

Similarly, the airport's fire service, which is currently working side by side with a British team, needs to shape up to meet tougher safety standards.

Like the controllers, many have held their positions through wars and leadership battles, and also like their colleagues in the tower, are going through intensive retraining and equipping.

Abdul Aman Mansor used to attend fires in his t-shirt and overalls. Now he has up-to-the-minute fire retardant clothes and breathing equipment.

Despite 35 years in the job, he says he still learned new things on training trips to Oman and drills in Basra.

In May, Abdul and four others are going to Teesside Airport in England to see how they run their operation, and he says he hopes the region will become so secure that "even British tourists will come to Basra without the hazard of kidnapping".

He is undoubtedly enthusiastic, and one focus of the trip to Teesside is to develop a sense of professionalism in the team.

There is a tendency, the British fire officers complain, for the Iraqis not to come to work on Fridays or holidays.

"They have to realise that just because it's a prayer day it doesn't mean the flying will not continue - that's an education," said one.

The long-term goal is that the Iraqi firemen will be able to operate by themselves like the controllers, and the British military will hand the airport over to the Iraqis lock, stock and barrel.


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