A French Airbus carrying politicians, businessmen and journalists landed at Baghdad airport yesterday, blazing a trail for the first, sustained commercial flights from Europe to the Iraqi capital since the first Gulf war in 1990.
From January, the small French airline Aigle Azur plans to venture where larger companies – mostly for commercial reasons – fear to tread. Flights exist to Baghdad from several Middle Eastern countries, and even from Australia, but there are no other direct links from Europe.
The test flight yesterday, carrying 40 French businessmen and the French Trade Minister, Anne-Marie Idrac, is regarded by the Iraqi government as an important step towards the normalisation of relations with the outside world. It is regarded by the French government as a step towards rebuilding the strong economic links which existed between France and Iraq before the UN sanctions imposed on the Saddam Hussein regime in the early 1990s.
After stepping from the Aigle Azur Airbus A319 at Baghdad International Airport, Ms Idrac said: "This is a new chance for the development of business between France and Iraq but more globally, between Europe and Iraq."
Yesterday's flight coincided with the opening today of the Baghdad International Trade Fair, which has attracted interest from 1,200 companies and 15 countries around the world.
Austrian Airlines already flies from Vienna to Irbil in the Kurdish part of Iraq. The Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, Gulf Air from Bahrain, and MEA from Beirut have direct flights to Baghdad.
But there have been no regular commercial flights from Europe since 1990, other than a brief foray by Nordic Airways which flew from Copenhagen to Baghdad for a couple of weeks in January last year before its operating license was withdrawn. Lufthansa studied the possibility of flights from Germany earlier this year but decided that there was not yet sufficient demand.
It is hardly surprising that the idea did not instantly prove commercially appealing. When flights into the airport were threatened by missile fire at the height of the conflict, pilots adopted a hair-raising corkscrew manoeuvre as they approached the airport to avoid being hit.
But now prospects look a little brighter. The Iraqi national carrier, Iraqi Airways, tried to start flights to London in April but withdrew after Kuwait took legal steps to impound the inaugural plane to recover debts from the Iraqi invasion of the small Gulf state in 1990. Iraq has since dissolved Iraqi Airways. A new, private Iraqi airline, Al Nasr, is expected to start occasional flights to London this month.
Aigle Azur, which already flies between France and Africa, plans to fly twice a week from Paris Charles de Gaulle to Baghdad from the new year. This will not – initially at any rate – be a cut-price option for people seeking a weekend trip to an unusual destination. An economy seat will cost ¤1,500 (£1,300) return. Business class will be ¤2,500 return.
The president of Aigle Azur, Arezki Idjerouidene, said yesterday: "We already have a great deal of interest from almost all European countries, from the United States and from west Africa. I am touched that our company will be able to participate in this way in the reconstruction of Iraq."
Nasser Hussein Badr, the official in charge of aviation at the Iraqi Transport Ministry, said: "The resumption of flights between France and Iraq shows that our relations with Europe are on the way to being normalised."
In the past two decades, Sri Lanka's Bandaranaike International Airport has been a key target for Tamil Tiger rebels. Two years ago, the airport was forced to close at night for two months following a series of Tamil Tiger air strikes.
Lawless Somalia has an airport to match, and in September nine civilians were killed by two suicide bombs by Al-Shabab insurgents.
Birmingham airport is not quite so hazardous – but this year more than 50 flights have been attacked by strong lasers that can blind pilots as they land.