Thursday, May 16, 2013

Afghanistan: Afghan Air Industry in Trouble

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

As travellers opt to fly with foreign airlines, domestic companies say they cannot withstand competition from outside.

Afghan Air Industry in Trouble

Insiders in Afghanistan’s embattled civil aviation industry say the government's “open skies” policy is squeezing them out of existence.

The policy, launched in December 2011, creates a liberal environment for foreign as well as local carriers, allowing them to choose routes, sell flights and set fares at their own discretion.

Eighteen months on, Farid Paikar, chairman of an association of Afghan airline, says the open skies policy has driven domestic airlines to the point of collapse.

“Unfair competition between foreign and domestic companies has created serious problems for Afghan airlines," he said.

Sayid Hashemi, head of the commercial section at Kam Air, the first privately-owned airline in Afghanistan, said foreign firms were able to undercut Afghan ones because their running costs were cheaper.

“We have to buy one ton of fuel for 1,750 [US] dollars, while airlines flying in from Dubai pay 800 dollars," he said.

Gholam Hazrat Safi, the director of Safi Airlines, another private operator, agreed that the rules of competition were unfair, and said foreign companies benefited from a range of subsidies from their governments, while Afghan carriers had to balance their books themselves through ticket sales.

According to a recent investigation by the BBC’s Persian Service, Afghan airlines are losing millions of dollars, not helped by the fact that most passengers now choose to fly with foreign airlines wherever they can.

Announcing the open skies initiative in 2011, the government said it would create healthy competition, raise safety standards and improve the quality of service for passengers.

Travellers say they have not noticed any improvements in the level of service or the timeliness of scheduled flights.

“Air travel in Afghanistan is quite different from that in other countries," Kabul resident Abdol Qader Hudkhel complained as he waited for his flight. "In other countries, everything is done according to the law, but here it’s all down to the will of individuals. Each airline flies as it pleases, they increase ticket prices, the onboard crews don’t treat passengers properly. There are many, many problems."

Like others who can afford it, Siyawash, a resident of the western Herat province, takes domestic flights rather travel by road and face the risk of insurgent attack. But he said he was sick of the inefficiency.

“I have a ticket from Ariana Airlines, and the ticket said take-off was at nine in the morning," he said as he waited at Herat’s airport. "It's now 11, and there’s still no word of the flight.”

The state carrier Ariana Afghan Airlines seems particularly unpopular.

Najib, a resident of Nimroz province, said that not one of the domestic flights he had taken in the last five years had started on schedule.

“Other companies suffer from delays as well, but they are most frequent with Ariana Airlines," he added.

Mohammad Yaqub Rasuli, manager of Kabul airport, which handles about 20 domestic and international flights a day, said the airlines were supposed to notify passengers of any change of schedule, and were reprimanded when flights were delayed.

“When a flight is more than an hour late, the airline is issued with a warning,” he said. “Here, Ariana Airlines… has been given the most warnings for delayed domestic flights."

The director of Ariana Afghan Airlines director, Nasir Ahmad Hakimi, insisted that service levels were improving and customers were satisfied.

“We had some problems a year ago, but we have managed to solve them in recent months," he said. "We haven’t received any complaints from the public, and we do tell people to inform us officially of any problems so that we can address them."

At Kam Air, Hashemi said that they had not received any customer complaints, either.

“Even if there has been a few minutes’ delay, it has been due to passenger checks, security and other issues of that kind, but it's incidental,” he added.

Safi acknowledged that his airline had teething problems after it was launched in 2006, but insisted things had improved greatly.

“I don't deny there have been delays in flights due to technical problems or occasional bad weather, but these are not ongoing issues,” he said.

Nangialay Qalatwal, spokesman for Afghanistan’s ministry of transport and aviation, also spoke of improvements.

“Flights are delayed for various reasons, sometimes because of technical matters, but these are temporary problems,” he said. “If flights are delayed without due cause, because of negligence on the part of the airlines, they face penalties.”

Qalatwal also denied claims that ticket pricing was in chaos, saying his ministry had a department that kept a close eye in prices.

“Ticket prices varied in the past, but they weren't controlled by the transport ministry at that time. Now, if the tickets are sold for more than the ministry decides, legal action is taken.”

Safety is a major concern for air travellers, who remember all too well the 2010 Pamir Airways crash in the Hindu Kush and the 2005 Kam Air disaster near Kabul. In both accidents, all the passengers were killed.

The age, condition and maintenance of aircraft has been enough of a concern to prompt the European Union to blacklist all Afghan airlines since November 2010.

Paikar said he hoped the EU would alter this policy in the next six months, as the planes in use in Afghanistan were airworthy. As evidence of this, he said that all aircraft were underwritten with insurance.

At the aviation ministry, Qalatwal denied that Afghanistan’s civil aviation fleet consisted of obsolete planes. All those now in use were new and in good working order.

“The ministry has a strong team that monitors flight safety, and they are constantly scrutinising plains to ensure they are safe. If companies don't meet safety standards, they won’t be allowed to fly. The public need have no fears on that account."

Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.