Last year in August I had the distinct "pleasure" of flying to Tehran on board of an Iran Air Boeing 747. In light of the fact that Iran's air industry has had two plane crashes and two more in-flight emergencies in just the past 3 weeks, it is important for Americans to understand that US sanctions are partly the cause of these disasters--and that they can be prevented.
I arranged my trip last year so I could attend my cousin's wedding. As a dual Iranian-Canadian citizen, I am able to travel to Iran with relative ease, and despite common stereotypes, travel to Iran is perfectly safe--that is, except if you are traveling with Iranian airlines.
Needless to say after the trip I swore never to fly with Iran Air again.
This is not because of stale peanuts or bad airplane food. On the contrary, the "chelo kabab" was the only aspect of the flight that I actually enjoyed. Rather, it was because of the horrifying conditions of the three decade old planes that are standard for Iran's air travel industry.
My aircraft was one of the first generation Boeing 747 series that the Shah purchased from the United States before the 1979 revolution. Upon sitting, the first thing I noticed was the ashtrays that were still functional in the armrests of the chairs, even though smoking is not allowed on board. Evidently, these aircrafts have not been upgraded for quite some time.
My seat was positioned just behind the wing, and as a beautiful London sunset was bouncing off the engines I noticed the rust around the rivets holding the wings on to the aircraft. "Great," I thought; "that's what I wanted to see right before takeoff."
As the passengers were boarding the plane a family of three took their seats about five rows from where I was sitting. From what I could see, the son of this family was suffering from Down's syndrome and was in a wheelchair. Unfortunately, this particular Boeing 747 was not wheelchair accessible.
Here the "helpful" flight attendants suggested to the parents that they either take the next flight or "sit at the very front of the aisle and hold on to the wheelchair to keep it from rolling." The parents were irate, and demanded to speak to the pilot, who also told them to take the other flight and kindly leave his aircraft.
After the family exited, the flight finally took off. Only then did the pilot announce over the intercom that, due to the plane's instability, we would be unable to fly at the normal cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. Instead, we would be flying lower and slower, prolonging my mid-air nightmare by another two hours. One of the passengers sitting near me asked the flight attendant the reason for the additional delay. Her answer was less than reassuring: "The airframe and the wings of the aircraft can no longer sustain themselves in high altitudes so we have to fly lower."
My return trip wasn't any better. On the way back to Canada, my flight was delayed for three hours because the aftermarket hydraulic pipe (probably purchased secondhand from the Chinese) of our Iran Air 747 was leaking fluid and had to be repaired.
So can we chalk this up to an inferior "third world" aviation industry that can't afford basic maintenance? Or is it possible that our efforts to squeeze the Iranian government have had the unintended effect of choking off vital parts and services necessary for keeping passenger planes from falling out of the sky?
As an indirect consequence of the US embargo on trade with Iran, Iranian Airlines have been prohibited from updating their 30 year-old American aircrafts. Additionally, U.S. sanctions even make it difficult for Iranian airliners to get European spare parts for their fleet of Airbus planes, hence the sanctions prevent upkeep of these aircrafts as well. This has forced the Iranian civilian aircraft industry to rely on poor Russian substitutes, many of which are from the Soviet era and for which it is difficult to find spare parts.
Two particular aircraft commonly in use in Iran are the Tupolev Tu-154 also known among Iranians as "flying coffins" and the Ilyushins 76, the Soviet-era workhorses for Russian civil air fleets. The Tu-154 was produced by the Soviet Union in the early 1960s until their production was halted due to their poor flight history. After the Soviet collapse, government funding sharply declined for manufacturers of aircraft and spare parts, hence other countries such as Iran who are using their planes have had a harder time obtaining parts and have had to resort to cannibalizing planes from their own fleet.
The difficulty in obtaining spare parts and service has taken its toll on the safety of Iran's civilian fleet. The wear and tear from operating the same planes for decades began to show in 2002 when two Tu-154 planes crashed, killing 128. In 2003, a Russian-made Ilyushins 76 that was carrying elite members of the revolutionary guard crashed and left 302 dead. In 2005 a US-made C-130 which was purchased before the 1979 revolution crashed and caused the deaths of 115 passengers. And finally, in the past three weeks alone, two Tu-154s crashed, a Boeing 707 had two engines catch fire mid-flight, and another passenger plane's landing gear malfunctioned after takeoff. In all, at least 185 passengers have died in the past three weeks alone.
A spokesperson for Boeing indicated to me that the poor safety record of Iranian aircraft is a serious concern for them. "This is really a safety of flight issue," the spokeswoman said. "We care about the safe operation of our fleet of aircrafts worldwide, regardless of the country."
Current law prohibits the export to Iran of aircraft parts without a specific license from the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), though obtaining a license is a daunting task. According to Boeing's spokesperson, the application process often takes place with a "presumption of denial."
There is a popular joke in Iran that says Iranian pilots always say their prayers on the intercom before taking off. For years now, the safety of Iran's civilian planes and the lives of hundreds of their passengers have rested on a wing and a prayer. How many more people will have to die before lawmakers realize that our broad sanctions on Iran -- which have little or no impact on the government's behavior -- are unnecessarily killing innocent people? Can't we figure out a way to put pressure on the government but spare the men, women, and children of Iran just trying to travel from one place to another? I would like to think that we can, but until politicians in Washington take a closer look at the unintended consequences of our Iran policy, it is the people of Iran who will suffer the most.