Air Afgan

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Air Afghan: 1 plane, 1,600 employees

Associated Press

Kabul, Afghanistan -- Jahed Azimi is an amiable former airplane pilot with a tough job: rebuilding Afghanistan's national airline.
After punishing U.N. sanctions and weeks of U.S. and British bombing that largely wiped out what was left of the fleet, the new president of Ariana Afghan Airlines is trying to revive a bloated state operation that lacks a key tool: airplanes.

How many exactly does he have?

"Don't ask me that question," he says, rolling his eyes. "One aircraft and 1,600 employees. Can you believe it?"

What do all the employees do?

"They get their salary," he says, shrugging.

But, Azimi says, Ariana will rise to the occasion. After all, this is the airline that began domestic flights in December despite an unexploded bomb in the middle of the runway. The airplane used the taxiway to take off and land.

Now, with only one serviceable Boeing 727 sitting on the tarmac beside the bombed-out hulks of its former fleet, Ariana is trying to rebuild its international schedule, which once included flights to London, Paris and Frankfurt.

Ariana is operating twice-weekly flights to the United Arab Emirates, New Delhi, and Herat in western Afghanistan. Its six captains and nine flight crews take turns making the runs.

The flight schedule is mostly theoretical. On Wednesday, passengers from Tuesday's flight to Dubai were still sitting in the dimly lit, austere waiting room. Men in camouflage uniforms served them airline meals Ñ rice with sauce, a salad and an apple Ñ on plastic trays.

"There is no real flight schedule," says Al Haj Ghulam Ali Timar, general manager of Kabul International Airport. "Unfortunately, there is only one aircraft. Sometimes a flight is scheduled and our government sends a delegation, and the scheduled flight is canceled."

Nonetheless, passengers were grateful for the $150 flight to Dubai. Businessman Haji Ali Akbar, 52, takes the flight every week. When he traveled from Dubai in December, he had to fly to Uzbekistan and make the journey by land to Kabul Ñ including a one-hour walk through a mountain pass because a bridge was out.

"It's so much better now," he says.

Like much of Afghanistan, the airport is a shambles ÑÑ destroyed during factional fighting between 1992 and 1996 that preceded the Taliban. Repairs had begun, but a new radar system put in only months before the Sept. 11 terror attacks was destroyed by U.S.-led bombing last year. Today, British and French peacekeepers sit in the control tower, guiding pilots in by radio. There are no permanent runway lights, so civilian craft can't land after sunset.

What's more, there are land mines on either side of the runway, and a 2,000-pound bomb lies unexploded among the wreckage of Ariana's former fleet.

"There is a group clearing the mines. Sometimes there is a big noise," Timar says, raising his arms to indicate an explosion. "We tell the passengers, ÔDon't worry, please."'

Ariana's fleet of planes was all but destroyed by the U.S. bombing. Two Boeing 727s and four Antonov AN-24s were hit, Azimi says. A fifth Antonov, damaged in a helicopter attack by anti-Taliban forces, was repaired and made a few domestic runs, but is now broken again.

And a Tupolev Tu-154 that used to be part of the fleet was sold to Iran in 1998 by former President Burhanuddin Rabbani Ñ after he was ousted by the Taliban Ñ for only $400,000. Rabbani says the airplane needed expensive maintenance Ñ and that he needed money to pay the company that prints Afghanistan's currency.

Even so, Azimi has big plans. For now, he is buying a second Boeing 727 Ñ used Ñ from American Airlines. He expects delivery early next week. And he is looking for ways to buy more.

For now, he gets funds from the United Nations for salaries and other costs. But big ticket items have to wait.

"I need to start everything from zero," he says. "What do I need? Just I need aircraft."

In the longer term, Azimi wants to privatize the airline, or to enter into a joint venture with a major foreign airline. Azimi is also eyeing Ariana's foreign accounts. The U.N. Security Council voted in January to unfreeze them, but Azimi says he still doesn't have access to the money.

Nonetheless, he says the airline Ñ like Afghanistan Ñ will find a way to rebuild itself.

"Just give me a break and you'll see," he says. "Everything will work out."
:eek:
 

Ronnie Dobbs

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Man, I'd really want to be armed if I had to fly for them! I wonder what THEIR airport security is like?
 

airgator

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That's gotta suck for the poor camels that have to haul 2000 gallons of jet A on their backs across the tarmac.
 

BoxFlyr

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the united nations is funding it? i guess since americans bombed their planes we'll be buying them new ones.
 

saabtrash

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Absoloutely fantastic! How long before a 727 full of fuel crashes into one of our military bases over there? No good.
 

A1FlyBoy

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"In the longer term, Azimi wants to privatize the airline, or to enter into a joint venture with a major foreign airline."

A future Star Alliance partner? ;)
 
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