NYT: Iran’s Aging Airliner Fleet Seen as Faltering Under U.S. Sanctions
The New York Times
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
Published: July 13, 2012
TEHRAN — Capt. Houshang Shahbazi was preparing to land at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport last October when a blinking red light in the cockpit of his 40-year-old Boeing 727 signaled that he had a big problem: the landing gear in the nose was jammed.
Behind the cockpit, in rows of cramped, outdated seats, sat 120 passengers who had boarded the Iran Air flight three hours earlier in Moscow. Captain Shahbazi and his crew performed all the emergency procedures, but the plane’s front wheel remained stuck.
As the passengers were told to prepare for a crash landing, Captain Shahbazi placed both hands on the controls and tried to banish thoughts of charred bodies and flaming wreckage.
When he joined Iran’s state airline in 1983, its fleet of Boeings and Airbuses was in mint technical condition. Whenever he walked down the gate toward his plane, black Aviator sunglasses under his pilot’s cap, Captain Shahbazi said, he would swell with pride and confidence.
But after 17 years of United States sanctions that have prevented the Islamic Republic from buying new Western planes and spare parts, he said he now felt ashamed before his passengers and angry over American policies, which he said, were responsible for Iranian plane crashes that have left more than 1,700 passengers and crew members dead.
The sanctions have prevented oil-rich Iran from updating its fleet, forcing it to use substandard Russian planes and to patch up its older jets far past their normal years of service, drawing on spare parts bought with increasing difficulty on the black market. Rarely a year goes by without major airline accidents, and most Iranian planes, including the 727, are forbidden to operate within the European Union.
“Our planes are completely worn out,” Captain Shahbazi said, emphasizing that mechanics were doing what they could to keep the planes flying safely. That was getting harder and harder, he said. “In reality, each flight can be our last.”
As it turned out, that seemingly doomed flight from Moscow was not to be his last. Captain Shahbazi pulled off a miracle landing, deftly manipulating the brakes to balance the plane until it gently tipped down its nose after slowing considerably. The incident wascaptured on video and turned Captain Shahbazi into a national hero, the Chesley Sullenberger of Iran.
Days after the crash landing, Captain Shahbazi said he was told that the gear had failed for lack of hydraulic pressure, a typical consequence of wear and tear. “It doesn’t have to be like this,” he said, citing Iran’s oil wealth. “The U.S. can allow us to buy the planes.”
The airline sanctions were put in place under President Bill Clinton in 1995, and are separate from more recent restrictions on financial transactions aimed at Iran’s nuclear program. But the two have become intertwined. During the recent negotiations over the nuclear program, world powers offered to suspend the airline sanctions as an incentive for Iran to stop enriching uranium.
While many Iranians are quick to blame their own leaders for the country’s growing isolation, almost everyone is upset over the American measures against Iran’s airlines.
“I support the pressure on our leaders,” said Janet, a 54-year-old homemaker who did not want to give her full name, for fear of the authorities. “But I don’t understand why the U.S. wants to hurt us, normal people. Don’t we have the right to travel safely?”
President Obama, in an interview with the Persian service of the BBC in 2010, said that he was concerned for Iranians, but that they had to blame their own leaders for the problems they faced. In 2010, his administration forced international oil companies to stop refueling Iran Air planes in Europe and Asia, which caused the cancellation of many popular routes.
But for Ali Rastegar, 27, and his sister Hanieh, 30, it has been hard to find someone to blame for the death of their father. The Boeing 727 he worked on crashed just outside the western city of Oroumieh in January 2011.
“My dad would always tell me never to work in the air,” said Mr. Rastegar in their carpet-lined apartment in Tehran. “He said it was too dangerous.”
The evening of his father’s death, Mr. Rastegar received a phone call from a friend asking whether his father was working — state television had reported a crash. Frantic calls to his father’s cellphone went unanswered. In total, 77 people died in the accident, most of them students on their way to college.
“Of course, they would still be alive had we had new planes,” Mr. Rastegar said, as his older sister quietly wept.
It was not the first time his father had told him of serious problems with his planes. “You don’t fix those with constant repairs,” said Mr. Rastegar, who was training to become an airplane mechanic. “But it’s all we can do for now.”
Buying spare parts on the black market has also become more problematic with the new sanctions on financial transactions. On Sunday, the chief executive of Iran Air, Farhad Parvaresh, said that the prices had risen by nearly 40 percent in the last few months.
Captain Shahbazi has started an independent campaign to persuade the Obama administration to lift the sanctions on spare parts and new planes, signing up nearly 125,000 Iranians on his Web site.
“I ask President Obama to take responsibility and think of us, the Iranian people,” he said. “We should not lose our lives over politics.”