How did Macair Flight Support first become involved in the Kurdistan Region?
In 2008, we were approached about getting involved in the airline business here in Kurdistan; it was clear that flight support services were needed for airlines operating in the Region. So, we came here and examined at the airport, the economy, and the business community. It was clear that this was virgin territory with a strong opportunity for growth. In the US, there is a lot of competition for providing the services that we provide. Here in Kurdistan, there was both a market and a need; I felt that we would be able to leave our mark. So, we elected to pursue a plan in which we would establish ourselves as a provider of customer service on the fixed-base operation (FBO) side of aviation. As such, we cater to all VIP passengers, and then the aircraft and crew as well. Our goal is to build a state-of-the-art facility for providing these services, then move on to the construction of a maintenance facility, and possibly round-out our work here by establishing a flight school. Two years ago, we began handling these services for all Macair flights. Macair is the local company and then we have our sister company, Komar Aviation. Together, our personnel have about 120 years of combined experience. They are well-trained, experienced, and highly capable.
The airport itself has established clear growth targets, and it’s doing everything in its power to make sure they’re met.
Why did you all elect to pursue only the flight support services as opposed to operating the flights as well?
When you’re talking about Komar and Macair, you’re talking about two companies that have access to the global market. That is, we have worldwide coverage. However, Komar is an American company and both organizations utilize American personnel. So, when we were first getting established here, we had to abide by Federal Aviation Administration Order SFAR 77, which did not allow for American pilots or aircraft to fly into Iraq. So, we were somewhat restricted in terms of the options that we could offer.
If an airline wishes to begin service to the Kurdistan Region, it must first receive authorization from Baghdad. Can that be a challenging procedure?
To operate in Erbil, you have to get approval to overfly the airspace of Iraq. That authorization is under the control of the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority (ICAA); any time you fly into the Kurdistan Region you must first receive authorization from them. Then, of course, if you’re flying into Erbil International Airport (EIA), you’re dealing with their tower and their air traffic controllers. So, they have a certain amount of jurisdiction, which varies based on whether the incoming flight is high altitude or low altitude. This is basically the same procedure as in most other countries, except that communicating with both parties can be challenging. I personally wish that there were better coordination and communication across the board. With that in mind, I should add that the ICAA works in English. They have had Americans working with them since 2003, so the system is fairly well established in that regard. Then, of course, the aviation itself is conducted in English. Generally speaking, their writing abilities are better than their speaking abilities, so it tends to be easier to communicate with Baghdad via email.
How do you see the aviation industry in the Kurdistan Region developing over the next few years?
One thing is for certain: things are changing for the better. The people here may have lacked experience in the past, but they’re now acquiring it. More importantly, they’re putting the right people in the right places, which will consequently allow them to make the right decisions in the future. The airport itself has established clear growth targets, and it’s doing everything in its power to make sure they’re met. Obviously, there is a lot of activity in terms of the airlines that are already in the Region or seeking to become established here. As the passenger numbers for both Erbil International Airport and Slemani International Airport can attest, people are coming into Kurdistan at a fairly consistent rate. So, overall, things are moving in the right direction.
Are there obstacles or challenges that still need to be overcome in order to ensure that this growth remains steady?
Regulation is the most important factor in that regard. Oversight is fundamentally important, be it from the FAA or from another independent organization. Regulation facilitates safety and passenger confidence. For example, Komar Aviation has had an ARGUS Platinum rating for eight consecutive years. This is the highest safety, management, and business award that you can receive, and we were one of the first 35 companies to receive it. To clarify, that’s out of 3,500 companies worldwide. We were able to attain this standing in part because regulations kept us operating at our highest capacity. Moreover, clients don’t think to ask certain questions that regulators do. When a customer is chartering a plane, the first question they ask is, “What’s the cost?” This is understandable. However, no one ever asks, “How did you train the pilots? Who maintained your aircraft? How did you maintain the plane?” Instead, they want a cost estimate. So, oversight is needed across a variety of different sectors. Of course, the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority (ICAA) will provide some regulation. In addition, for some companies based in different parts of the world, oversight will come from their own civil aviation authorities. All carriers are under the jurisdiction of the ICAA, but local oversight is still extremely important. The growth is going to happen, and you need organizations in place to ensure that it happens in the right ways.