No Planes or Flights: Is This Any Way To Run an Airline?

It Is If You're Iraqi Airways; Gulf War Ended Service But Not a Longing to Serve

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- On weekends, Fariz Ani tinkers with the diesel engines that drive Iraq's dilapidated locomotives. But on workdays, he attends to his real love, and his real job: He is chief engineer for Iraqi Airways.

While at the rundown Iraqi Air hangar, he sometimes runs into Capt. Akram Hasan, who continues, when he can, to hone his skills on the company's flight simulator. Sufa Khouri, a flight attendant, also attends airline-sponsored refresher courses on flight services and evacuation procedures.

Like Mr. Ani, Capt. Hasan and Ms. Khouri moonlight. In fact, much of the entire 800-member staff at Iraq's flag carrier hold down two or more jobs while trying to hold the airline together. That's because Iraqi Airways can't fly -- hasn't flown, in fact, for almost nine years.

Iraqi Airways has been a bird in a corroded cage ever since the U.S. and its allies ejected Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait and imposed a no-fly-zone on most of Iraq in early 1991. Its fleet is mothballed, its headquarters and hangars grow ramshackled, and its prospects for flying aren't much better than they were at the Gulf War's end. Yet the airline's staff largely hangs together, convinced it will be allowed aloft again one day.

"We've given these people incentives to get up in the morning," says the airline's chairman, Sami Ralih. "Any other airline would have folded by now."

Of course, flying again is dependent on a lifting of the trade embargo against Iraq by the United Nations. Though a resolution working its way through the U.N. would lift sanctions -- critics contend the embargo hurts ordinary Iraqis -- the U.S. government opposes ending sanctions until Saddam Hussein surrenders his weapons of mass destruction and his ability to produce them.

As this diplomatic dust-up drags on, nowhere is Iraqi pluck -- or, perhaps, wishful thinking -- more vividly displayed than at Iraqi Air headquarters at the far end of Saddam Hussein Airport. Here, Mr. Hussein's visage beams from huge portraits at an eerily vacant terminal complex. Exposed wires hang down from the headquarters' tile ceilings. The windows are crossed with masking tape to minimize injury in case of an air attack.

To get an idea of the kind of shadowboxing that keeps Iraqi Airways in shape, just sit in on one of Mr. Ani's training courses. The hangar where the trainees work is nearly empty except for the decayed remnants of the personal airplane of King Faisal II, the last Iraqi monarch, who was assassinated in a 1958 coup. Birds flit among the rafters high above. A tangle of war-damaged metal scaffolding used to service jumbo jets rests forlornly in the corner, awaiting repair.

Class is held in a small addition to the main hangar under fluorescent light that flickers over a Pratt & Whitney J93D-7 jet engine, suspended from a hoist. Today's lesson: removing, disassembling and cleaning the gear box. Mr. Ani's class of five engineers consults a dog-eared manual that is a generation out of date; the manufacturer won't supply an update.

No matter. The manual is now a bit superfluous; this particular engine was due to be shipped to Dublin for a complete overhaul when the war intervened. Now, it is probably the only commercial jet engine left in the entire country. So it has been stripped and reassembled hundreds of times since the war.

Mr. Ani, a studious man given to gray cardigans and those pocket protectors worn by engineers, waxes enthusiastic despite the repetition. "There's nothing like stripping down a Pratt," he says.

There is no plane to go with the Pratt; state-owned Iraqi Airways' fleet was scrambled to safety just before the Gulf War began, and most planes ended up in nearby Jordan. Twice a year, half a dozen maintenance men drive there to do light repairs on the Boeing fleet.

Not far from the hangar, in the simulator room, the silver-haired, 44-year-old Capt. Hasan is taking a refresher course to maintain his pilot's certification, along with Iraqi Airways' 120 other pilots. The airline is down to one functioning simulator; the other two have been cannibalized for parts.

Capt. Hasan, who studied aviation in Britain and the U.S., soloed in 1976 in a Piper Cherokee and is certified to fly every aircraft in Iraqi Airways' fleet. Before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Capt. Hasan earned the equivalent of $4,500 a month, well above the pay for most white-collar professionals. Immigration officials everywhere would wave him through as he flashed his Iraqi Airways identification card, and hotels would give him generous discounts. "Wherever we flew, we were treated like elite citizens," he says.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait, however, things changed. Arriving in Vietnam, he and his crew were refused hotel rooms. Before departing on Jan. 16, 1991 -- his last flight -- he scrawled in his diary, "Everyone is dark. They don't know where their future lies." In the air, by radio, he got the news that the Desert Storm attack on Iraq had begun.

Now, Capt. Hasan earns the same salary in dinars as before, but inflation has eroded its value to about $2.50 a month. (Some Iraqi Air employees are on pensions; others get paid for training, though the airline declined to say how many still draw some form of pay.) Besides his day job, Capt. Hasan sells used machinery from a narrow, dimly lighted stall in downtown Baghdad and builds computers at home. Still, he thinks, once sanctions are lifted and the Iraqi Airways fleet is upgraded, he can be flying within a month.

"I'm still at the best age to be a pilot," he says. "I hear the technology has changed, but it's nothing I can't master."

Capt. Saad A.A. Majeed just completed his refresher course. Like many Iraqi Airways pilots, the 45-year old had a hard time transferring his skills to the ground. He tried investing in a bus but lost his money. He opened a laundromat, but that failed, too. Now, he helps run a tattered amusement park and teaches his son the fundamentals of flying. "I only know what I know -- flying," he says.

Capt. Kamil A. Al-Messhedani, assistant director general of flight operations, divides his time between headquarters and the main ticketing office in Baghdad, where the airline keeps ticket agents busy arranging occasional bus tours and sells telephone and fax services to visiting businessmen. He helps the airline's catering arm line up work at banquets and weddings, and keeps his pilots in touch with the world outside by asking visiting friends to smuggle in trade magazines.

"We're good to go," says Capt. Al-Messhedani, lighting up a Marlboro Light. His daughters won't let him smoke at home, he says. "They keep saying: `Remember, Daddy, you'll fly again.'"

Sufa Khouri, a 44-year-old flight attendant, also works at the ticketing office and, like other flight attendants without an airline, contents herself with ground duty. Recently, she and 29 other attendants greeted visitors at a national festival. Like her colleagues, she keeps her uniform cleaned and pressed, waiting for the day sanctions are lifted. "I've had to sell just about everything else," she says.

The long wait is occasionally punctuated by ripples of excitement. Last month, for example, Mr. Ani's engineering group was electrified when it received a fax from Boeing Co. in Seattle. "It was our first contact with the outside world since the embargo," says Mr. Ani, who took it as an overture by the aircraft giant to re-establish contact with Iraqi Airways.

Boeing explains the fax differently -- as standard notification to clients about the availability and price of updated documents. The offer applies only to clients in good standing, a Boeing spokesman says: "In accordance with existing restrictions, Boeing would not supply Iraqi Airways such updates without specific U.S. government approvals."