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Staying aloft.

RECENT YEARS have not been easy for the Syrian flag carrier, Syrianair. First, Washington banned the supply of aircraft and spare parts as part of a package of sanctions aimed at discouraging the Damascus authorities from dabbling in international terrorism. Then, the Soviet Union fell apart, disrupting the flow of spares for the company's Tupolev aircraft.

The spares problem with the former Soviet Union remains a headache, but in the past six months US sanctions have quietly been eased. Doubtless this is not unrelated to Syria's participation in the anti-Iraq coalition during the 1990-91 Gulf war.

"We no longer have any real problem with Boeing spares," Syrianair's director, General Omar Ali Rida, told The Middle East. "The situation is improving".

For the company, US policy is critical. Syrianair's fleet includes three Boeing 727-200s and two Boeing 747 SPs, all of them built in 1976.

But it is not just spares for these aircraft which is at stake. The airline badly wants to modernise and expand its fleet. Sitting on the tarmac in Kuwait are three Boeing 727s in Syrianair colours which Kuwait Airways Corporation wishes to transfer to Syria. Boeing has applied to the US authorities for permission for the transaction.

"Although we cannot say when the aircraft will be able to come, we are optimistic," says Rida. "We think that US approval will be a routine matter".

Well-placed sources in Washington say that the issue is being dealt with at a high level. Following the Israel-PLO peace agreement, and Syria's pivotal role in any comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement, it would be surprising if the Boeing 727s remain in Kuwait for much longer. Regardless of the fate of the ex-Kuwait 727s, Syrianair is interested in new aircraft.

"We are contemplating medium-range types," Rida declares. He adds that "all our options are open", but confirms that the company is holding discussions with both Boeing and Airbus.

Apart from the five Boeings, Syrianair's core fleet comprises two Caravelles (which will be the first to depart when new aircraft are acquired), three Tupolev TU-154Ms and two Tupolev TU-134s. In addition, there are a range of Soviet-supplied freighters and two Dassault Falcon 20 business jets in VIP configuration.

In addition, to its domestic network, linking the country's main cities, Syrianair, which employs 3,700 people (of whom 160 are pilots and 590 are maintenance technicians), operates scheduled services to some 35 international destinations. Most are in the Middle East, North Africa and West and East Europe, although they also include Delhi, Bombay and Karachi.

In 1991 services were resumed to London after a four-year break caused by the Hindawi affair, in which the Damascus government was accused of involvement in a plot to bomb an El Al Boeing 747 departing from London's Heathrow airport.

In 1991 the company carried 589,865 passengers at a load factor of 58% and 5.9m kg of freight was carried. Last year, there were more passengers, but slightly less freight. Syrianair carried 627,259 passengers (at a 54% load factor) and 5.1 kg of freight.

Assessing the airline's financial performance is not easy, and depends on which of the two main official exchange rates are employed. Overall revenues in 1992 totalled Syr 6.9bn substantially higher than in 1991 as the result of sharp fare increases. At one exchange rate, this is $616m. At the other, it is $164m.

In 1991, according to senior airline officials, the company made a profit of Syr 100m (either $2.4m or $8.9m. These figures compare with operating revenues of $88.1m and operating expenditures of $86.4m in 1990, resulting in a profit of $1.7m.

Routine servicing of Syrianair's aircraft is undertaken by Lufthansa in Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin; by British Airways in London; by Air France in Paris; and Russian Airways in Moscow.

More extensive overhauls are put out to tender. Airframe work on the 747s, for example, has been undertaken by Air France, while Lufthansa has overhauled the 747 engines. Aer Lingus has also been used for 747 overhaul, Royal Jordanian and Lufthansa for the 727s and Russian Airways for the Tupolevs.

Syrianair undertakes full overhauls of the Caravelles in its own facilities, although a Copenhagen company, Stirling, undertakes some specialist work on these aircraft.

Although the fleet is airworthy, it shows its age. Inside the Boeing 727s, for example, passenger seat covers are stained and threadbare; reclining mechanisms are unreliable; and doors on overhead lockers sometimes do not close securely.

Today, however, Syrianair could be at a turning point. During the 1980s Syria's economy was in deep recession and, US sanctions aside, it is doubtful whether the funds could have been found for new aircraft.

Now, the economic picture is far rosier. Damascus has won enormous economic and political benefits from its role in the anti-Iraq coalition, and Syrianair could be amongst the biggest beneficiaries. For the first time in years, fleet renewal has become a serious option rather than a distant hope.
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Title Annotation:Special Report; Syrianair
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:Punishing punches.
Next Article:Back to the big screen.

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