For many foreigners arriving in the Kurdistan Region, Erbil International Airport (EIA) provides the first glimpse of an increasingly modern and prosperous Iraqi Kurdistan. Opened as a civilian airport in just 2006 and newly renovated in 2010, Erbil’s airport has truly taken off. The facility connects Erbil with 24 cities in 15 countries through 23 different airlines, and is continuing to expand its reach. The early successes of EIA have come to be recognized internationally, and in January 2013, the airport was awarded ‘Best Emerging Airport’ with fewer than five million passengers per annum, by an international jury at the Emerging Market Airport Show in Dubai.

The freedom of movement that EIA provides the Region is significant for several reasons. In IIG’s interview with EIA’s Director General (DG), Talar Faiq Salih, she argues that “the airport plays a significant role as a gateway, as a connector, and as a facilitator of economic and social growth.” Historically, the success of the airport is significant on many levels. DG Salih describes how prior to 2003, the Region “was effectively isolated from the rest of the world,” cut off from the rest of Iraq by the Ba’ath Regime and limited by poor roads through the Zagros Mountains into Turkey. The openness provided by Erbil’s airport is therefore perceived as major symbolic victory for the Region.

The airport’s contributions to the Region, however, are also very substantive. The high volume of people and goods that pass through EIA is both indicative and supportive of the Region’s economic development. The airport has facilitated the influx of foreign investment into the Region, and has become an important hub for the import and export of goods into and from Iraq. Indeed, a large percentage of the equipment utilized by the companies operating in the oil and gas sector passed through the gates of the airport. EIA has also played a prominent role in helping establish the developing tourism industry in Kurdistan. Most notably, it is doing all of this quickly: growth in the volume of commercial passengers and cargo passing through the airport jumped by 53% and 54% respectively, year-on-year in 2012.

Reflecting the prominence of Erbil as a regional economic hub, there is demand from airlines to further increase the number of routes flown into and out of EIA. Establishing new routes has been slowed by administrative requirements by the aviation regulator in Baghdad. However, EIA is conducting analysis to target investments for further expansion of the airport’s capacity, variety of destinations, and number of airlines.

EIA was designed by a British firm and built by a Turkish contractor. The airport has capacity for 3 million passengers annually. It has also one of the longest runways in the world, which thereby enables large-scale cargo aircraft to successfully and easily access the Kurdistan Region. In addition to its main passenger and cargo terminals, the airport has a CIP terminal for private jets and businesspeople, and a VIP terminal for visiting diplomats and dignitaries.