Ask the pilot

Are there nations without airlines? What happened to Nigeria Airways? How safe is Syrianair? The pilot knows all.

By Patrick Smith

Published September 26, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

It goes without saying that your dissertations on the airlines of the world are very entertaining, enlightening, and allow you to elaborate on your open-minded, multicultural tendencies. All well and good. But what about countries that have no airlines? Are there some?

There are plenty of countries lacking what we might call a serious airline, but it's extremely difficult to locate any with no commercial operators whatsoever, even if it's just a copter or cargo plane, unless you get into the is-it-really-a-country game with places like the Vatican. As of right now there are no registered commercial operators in the Holy See, which of course has no airport. A few exist in similarly sized Andorra and Monaco, mainly flying helicopters.

Equatorial Guinea, to pick one, has 17 airlines of one kind or another. You'll find 19 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, seven in Swaziland, two in Rwanda, and two in Niger. (Go figure, but amidst Uganda's eight registered carriers are ones called Great Lakes Airways and United Airlines.) Guyana claims five, Cyprus and Belize four each.

The Equatorial Guinea thing does seem a bit off-scale. Most of them are freighter outfits, and some have mailing addresses in Belgium, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

OK, but an old Russian rattletrap hauling guns to Khartoum is one thing, you'll say, while a "national airline" is something else. True, but here too there's surprise. Even nations ravaged by war and unrest will make a point of keeping a namesake airline aloft. Consider Kuwait Airways during the '91 Gulf War. Defiantly, Kuwait's 747s were seen in New York even as coalition forces bombarded the retreating Iraqis.

Shortly after the U.S. ouster of the Taliban, I was pleased to spot an intact Ariana Afghan 727 at the airport in Delhi, India, evidently stashed there for safekeeping. Ariana's international services had been curtailed after U.N. sanctions in 1999, and eight of its planes were destroyed in the eventual U.S. bombing. Remarkably, within a year and a half Ariana took possession of replacement aircraft, including two ex-United 747s, and has resumed international flights to Russia, Turkey, India, the UAE and Germany.

(Of note: the same World Airways that I spoke of at length a few columns ago has opened service between Washington and Kabul, Afghanistan -- via Geneva. It's a para-civilian route that I imagine will be used mainly as a shuttle for armed forces and U.N. personnel.)

Restart plans for Iraqi Airways, formerly one of the most distinguished and reliable airlines of the Near and Middle East, remain uncertain. In that tacit manner of geopolitical kismet, Iraqi has operated primarily American-built Boeings since being established in 1945. Following the 1991 Gulf War, sanctions forced its grounding, and assets were hangared for protection in neighboring countries -- places like Amman, Jordan, and even Tehran (a bit like Saddam Hussein asking to store one of his personal jets at Andrews Air Force Base). Of property left behind in Baghdad, at least two Boeings were blown up by American forces during the 2003 invasion. The freshest resources list 14 aircraft still to Iraqi Airways' name. Two surviving 747s are dubbed Tigris and Euphrates.

Also traditionally loyal to U.S. suppliers was Iran Air, where more than 20 years after the Shah, pre-revolutionary Boeings continue flying as part of a 33-strong fleet. Somewhere in my photo collection is a shot of an Iran Air 747 taken at JFK in 1979, when I was a seventh grader. The company is just one of several Iranian airlines.

Syria's only carrier, the state-run Syrianair, has more scattered loyalties, operating a mix of Boeings, Airbuses, and assorted Russian models. Cringe if you want, but Syrianair has maintained a perfect safety record since at least 1970.

Rounding out the Axis of Evil comes Air Koryo, based at Pyongyang in North Korea. One of the last all-Soviet holdouts, Air Koryo features a graying roster of Antonovs, Ilyushins and Tupolevs.

Getting back to more peaceful regions, how about Air Namibia, airline of one of the world's most sparsely inhabited nations, with a 747-400 to its credit? Welwitschia is the plane's name, homage to a strange desert succulent that grows in the Namibian wilds and can live for centuries. (I only know this because I spent two weeks there and saw one.)

Or Druk-Air, aka Royal Bhutan Airlines, pride of the isolated Himalayan kingdom that until the 1970s didn't have telephone service. On Nauru, a South Pacific speck of 100,000, we have Air Nauru, in possession of a single 737 and in business since 1970. Tiny Luxembourg is home to Cargolux, a globe-spanning freight carrier with 12 747s.

The citizens-to-airline ratio brings up cases like Singapore Airlines and Emirates. Here are two of the most elite airlines, not to mention numbers two and five on a list of the world's most profitable, whose hometowns are city-states with relatively small populations. Singapore's 95 aircraft constitute one of the world's largest fleets of 747s and 777s, a stupendous accomplishment in a country smaller than metro Philadelphia. Emirates, an all-widebody operator with a population base half the size of Massachusetts, will be one of the first customers of the huge new Airbus A380, with 43 of them ordered at nearly $200 million apiece. How do they do it?

It comes down to strategic position, literally. It's all about connections, and by fortune of geography these states make excellent transit hubs along some of the busiest long-haul routes. They also happen to be quite wealthy, able to build the high-tech infrastructures and gleaming airports in which these esteemed brands can flaunt themselves.

Award-winning customer service doesn't hurt.

Similarly, Netherlands-based KLM might be the oldest airline in existence, but how does a country of 15 million support a 100-strong fleet that includes no fewer than 35 747s, ten MD-11s, and a dozen 767s, especially with major hubs like Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle barely an hour away? Answer: construct one of the world's most convenient airports, Amsterdam's Schiphol, and encourage the world to connect there instead of the less user-friendly terminals in Paris or London. In 2002 KLM transported 19 million passengers. As with Emirates, Singapore and many others, that's considerably more than the entire population of its home country. (Qantas, my Aussie readers are bound to remind me, accomplishes the same thing in relative isolation.)

Every country would like to have a respected airline carrying the flag beyond its borders. Not all can afford it, and have gotten around the hassle by joining collectives. Most renowned of these is Scandinavian Airlines, or SAS, the joint carrier of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. TACA, a popular airline from Central America, is another, acting on behalf of El Salvador, Guatemala, and a few other Latin nations. An arm of TACA has spread to Peru, where the national airline collapsed entirely.

My favorite, though, was Air Afrique, ex of Senegal, Mali, Cote d'Ivoire, and several other West African states. (You might recall Air Afrique as a backdrop during my Terminal One story back in February.) Their green and white planes used to be a common sight at Kennedy Airport. Once a symbol of postcolonial African renaissance, Air Afrique announced a final, final call in 2002 after 40 years in existence.

Another green and white African staple since the '60s was Nigeria Airways, though its recent liquidation is, maybe, cause for something less mournful. Notorious for corruption and inefficiency, the carrier reportedly had 12 chief executives in the past 18 years alone, at least a few of whom spent time in Nigerian courtrooms. In my cargo pilot days I was a frequent visitor to the airport in Brussels, Belgium, and one of the landmarks there was a derelict -- as in repossessed -- Nigeria Airways Airbus A310. For many months the impounded carcass sat near the DHL operations center, the Nigeria logo painted out, pilfered for parts until even the wings were gone. Eventually somebody purchased the hulk. It was towed away to the town of Charleroi, where it became a restaurant, the Airbus Cafe.

Part of Air Afrique's slack was taken up by Mali-based Société de Transport Aérien (STA). This airline, whose biggest asset is a single DC-9 that saw the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, celebrates its new opportunities with a Web site featuring enough translational malapropisms to out-funny the most hilarious Janglish. At STA, "Every aircraft is VERITAS certified, thanks to regular checks by certified organisms." At STA, "We have learned the precious lesson of time and its delays. And we want you to take advantage of it!"

This sets up a Bizarre Airlines of the World routine, which is probably something we shouldn't do. Remember U-Land and Kras Air from a few months ago?

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The ten biggest air carriers outside the United States (in millions of passengers for 2002)

1. Lufthansa (43.9, including subsidiaries)
2. All Nippon Airways (43.2)
3. Air France (38.0)
4. British Airways (34.4)
5. Japan Airlines (33.6)
6. Qantas (27.1)
7. Iberia (23.9)
8. Air Canada (23.4)
9. Korean (22.2)
10. Alitalia (22.0)

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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