The departure boards at Heathrow could soon be augmented by the return of a city that fell off the airline map 18 years ago: Baghdad. Even though the Foreign Office warns against all travel to the Iraqi capital, one of Britain's leading airlines hopes to launch a link from London within a year.
"BMI is ready and willing to re-establish air links between Heathrow and Baghdad," said Nigel Turner, the airline's chief executive. He has met senior Iraqi government officials in a bid to secure rights for the route: "The ability to travel by air between Heathrow and Baghdad is vital in supporting the considerable energy going into bringing business ties and investment back to normality," said Mr Turner.
BMI, which is the second-biggest airline at Heathrow, already serves a number of "niche" destinations in the region, including Yerevan in Armenia and Aleppo in Syria. It has shifted away from highly competitive short-haul European and long-haul transatlantic services to "mid-haul" links where it faces few rivals. From Heathrow to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, for example, the lowest return fare is £599, about twice the rate for a flight to Boston, which is the same distance from London. Fares to Baghdad are likely to be higher still.
BMI will target business, government and NGO travellers, as well as "VFR" traffic – people visiting friends and relations. It will also capitalise on its membership of the Star Alliance, with airlines such as Air Canada and United of the US transferring passengers at Heathrow.
The airline is likely to have the route to itself, at least initially. A spokeswoman for British Airways said the company had "no current plans" to return to the route it abandoned in 1991. A spokeswoman for the leading flight specialist, Trailfinders, said: "We've not registered any significant level of enquiries for travel to Iraq."
Before BMI begins services to Baghdad, the UK government will need to rescind its existing ban on direct links between the two countries. In addition, safety concerns about the airport must addressed to the satisfaction of the airline's security officials.
The only UK tour operator to Iraq is Hinterland Travel, which ran its first trip to the country in March. The company's founder, Geoff Hann, said he had already taken bookings for next year.