Flying Iraqi Airways, on a wing and (especially) a prayer

By Ernesto Londoño
Sunday, May 30, 2010

CAIRO -- We called it Inshallah Airways. God Willing Airways.

Sometimes other journalists and I said it lightheartedly, when Iraqi Airways pilots were the only ones willing to take off from Baghdad during thick sandstorms.

Other times we said it with rage, when no one would tell us when or whether flights would depart as the sun set and we were stuck for yet another night at the smoky, sweltering Baghdad airport.

The government-owned carrier, once among the best and largest in the region, chugged along through decades of wars and sanctions. In recent years, it was never known for punctuality, gourmet meals or customer service. But it was relatively functional -- a testament to Iraqis' resourcefulness and resilience.

Last week, though, the airline's luck appeared to run out. Having failed to settle a legal dispute with Kuwait over planes allegedly stolen from the oil-rich neighbor during Saddam Hussein's rule, Iraqi officials announced that they would liquidate the airline and cease flights soon.

"It was just like they called me and said, 'One of your sons and daughters died,' " Naseer Nouri told me after he heard the news. He's a former Iraqi Airways pilot who later worked from Baghdad as a journalist for The Washington Post.

I had a less visceral reaction, but the announcement did make me sad. Like many journalists, I'd grown fond of the scrappy airline and its quirks. I flew on Iraqi Airways more than a dozen times, most recently last week en route to Cairo. Like so many things in Iraq, it often seemed to work just barely.

Boarding Baghdad-bound flights from Cairo or Amman always felt like entering an unruly twilight zone. You didn't necessarily want to be going where you were going, and it wasn't clear how soon you'd get there. Being wheels up out of Baghdad, on the other hand, was incredibly liberating, making the check-in process -- really more luck of the draw, in most cases -- all the more nerve-racking.

The airline operated almost exclusively offline. Agents issued paper tickets, kept flight manifests on handwritten ledgers and accepted only cash. Tickets could be purchased only in person, and the scheduled departure times were announced the morning of the flight.

Sometimes the crews were Iraqi and the rules lax. Passengers talked on cellphones as planes were taking off. After their cell signals died, passengers used their mobiles to play loud tunes. Buckled seat belts were optional. No-smoking rules were non-compulsory; one friend remembers seeing a flight attendant lighting a cigarette for a passenger. And my colleague Leila Fadel recalls sitting on the tarmac, waiting for a flight to leave as mechanics made last-minute repairs.

Some of the crews were Eastern European, because the carrier leased airplanes and staff from small charter companies. Those flights were often a comedy of errors. Flight attendants went apoplectic when Iraqis rose to their feet as planes taxied toward the gate -- but the language barrier made it impossible to order anyone to remain seated. We heard "welcome to Baghdad International Airport" in heavily accented English from people who clearly couldn't wait to be back in the air.

The airline was founded in 1945. During its heyday in the late 1970s and early '80s, it offered flights to Rio de Janeiro and European and Asian hubs. Its planes were grounded when the United Nations restricted flights over most of Iraq's airspace following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The airline resumed flights in 2004 -- mainly to Amman, Tehran and other nearby destinations -- but relied heavily on charter companies because the legal dispute with Kuwait made it difficult to purchase new aircraft.

In the past few weeks, Iraqi Airways announced two major milestones. Soon, it would begin issuing electronic tickets. (An e-ticket out of Baghdad! Only in 2010.)

And it resumed flights to London, a goal that was delayed for years. But the maiden flight was the last; minutes after the plane touched down, Kuwaiti officials had a British court summon the airline's director general over the airplane dispute.

Iraqi Airways flights were often oversold, particularly when other carriers canceled flights because of sandstorms. One afternoon after a particularly arduous 10 weeks in Baghdad, I arrived at the airport, ticket in hand, to find that my name had been scratched off the manifest. There were a few dozen other passengers in the same situation and only a couple of seats left. We swarmed around the lone agent at the check-in counter.

The shrewdest Iraqis in the bunch dialed senior officials in the company and tossed their cellphones at the hapless clerk. The two with the most "wasta" -- or influence -- got boarding passes. The rest of us were assured we'd be on the next flight. Inshallah that evening. Inshallah tomorrow.

Ernesto Londoño is a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. He started reporting from Iraq in 2007.

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