Farnborough Air Show

Effort To Attract International Airlines to Afghanistan Underway

 - July 21, 2022, 4:23 PM
An Atlas Air Boeing 747 aircraft takes off from Kabul International Airport on December 13, 2010. In August 2021 the U.S. Department of Defense activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet calling on Atlas Air and other airlines to support the evacuation of U.S. citizens and refugees from Afghanistan. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons)

Although the Afghan government began to lay the foundation for some semblance of scheduled air service into the country with a recent deal with the UAE’s GAAC Solutions to furnish ground handling at key airports, the beleaguered administration still needs to address a litany of infrastructure needs as well as safety and security concerns as it plots the way forward. 

Whether the Afghan government styles itself the ‘Islamic Emirate’ or ‘Islamic Republic,’ it seems clear the situation in Afghanistan will continue to worsen before it gets better. In an April report, the World Bank set out a litany of problems facing the current government, including a 60 percent decline in public spending due to cessation of international aid; major disruption to health services; loss of access to the overseas assets of the central bank of around $9.2 billion, or 46 percent of 2020 GDP; cessation of international payments; and declines in investment confidence given pervasive uncertainty and fear. “Afghanistan’s economic outlook is stark,” the institution concluded.

A country risk profile published by Texas A&M University in April assessed Afghanistan’s risk level as ‘Extreme.’ 

“Travel is unsafe due to the unstable security situation involving armed conflict, terrorism, crime, and civil unrest," it said. "There is an extreme risk to personal safety and security because of widespread military operations, terrorism and insurgent attacks, and high levels of kidnappings, hostage-taking, suicide bombings, landmines, and vehicle-borne or other improvised explosive devices. Due to extensive warlordism and lawlessness, Afghanistan has long been beset by weak governance in many regions.”

Still, the month of June saw a procession of flights organized by domestic airlines Kam Air, Ariana Afghan Airlines, and Bakhtar Afghan Airlines, documented by flightradar24.com. That month, AIN could identify a departure by Turkish Airlines to Istanbul on June 1, and an arrival on June 2 by South Korean low-cost carrier, Jeju Air, flying an Airbus A340, between Dubai and Kabul. Some of those flights now occur regularly.

Progress in the general situation appeared a step closer when the government on May 24 said it struck its deal with GAAC Solutions to provide ground handling services at three of the country’s airports, Kabul, Herat, and Kandahar.

The deal came as a blow to Qatar and Turkey, which both played roles in ground services last year, but saw their hopes for further involvement founder, even as Qatar in March announced additional aid of $25 million to support the humanitarian response in Afghanistan after initially granting $50 million.

GAAC has expressed optimism about the agreement’s potential to encourage more air service and investment, even though it doesn't accompany any guarantee of more international flights in the immediate future. GAAC Group CFO Razack Alsam told AIN in June that the contract extended into the "medium term," and that it covered the airports of Herat, Kandahar, and Kabul for ground handling and aviation security (AVSEC). “For AVSEC, we have Mazar-i-Sharif, in addition to the three other airports,” he said.

Until last August, Emirates, Turkish Airlines, and Flydubai accounted for most of the international service to Afghanistan. Emirates, for one, hasn't yet expressed a firm intention to resume service. “We’re closely monitoring the situation in Afghanistan,” an Emirates spokesperson told AIN in June. “Currently, we have no firm plans to restart services to Kabul.”

Aslam confirmed that GAAC had maintained a presence in Afghanistan since November 2020, without giving more details. He said a number of other airlines want to establish routes to Afghanistan but that the effort to attract new clients remained a work in progress. “We also had Pakistan International Airlines, Air India, SpiceJet, and many other charters before August 2021,” he said. “We have many inquiries now and would wait until July to make announcements. I would not speculate now.” 

Notwithstanding GAAC's confidence, there remain detractors among others familiar with the country's inner workings.  Simon Miles, managing director of global ground operations and handling specialist Miles Aviation Consultancy, gained considerable experience on the ground in Kabul in recent years. “I personally can’t see much, if anything, happening there commercially until sanctions are lifted," he said. "Until then, who will fly there? Who, commercially, is interested in going there?”

He said that in all aspects of airport operations, GAAC would need assistance from overseas companies to restart operations, and those entities might see Afghanistan as a risk not worth taking. “[GAAC] simply don’t have enough of the expertise required to operate an airport safely,” Miles said.

Asked to assess GAAC’s prospects of winning international support for its efforts in Afghanistan, Aslam was sanguine. “There will always be nay-sayers," he said. "The reality may be different, but that doesn’t mean there are no challenges.”