Currently dispatching from Iraqi Kurdistan

Friday, December 15, 2006

The (Nearly) Impossible Task: Getting Out of Iraqi Kurdistan

I found out shortly after I arrived that Kurdistan Airlines changed its flight schedule, so my flight back to Frankfurt would be leaving 24 hours later than originally scheduled. The schedule change meant I would miss my flight from Frankfurt to the U.S., and because there isn't high traffic in and out of northern Iraq, I couldn't just hop another flight from here. I wasn't excited about giving up the ticket, either: It costs $1,000 to fly round-trip from Germany to Erbil, and I had already paid. It's a three-plus hour flight.

After spending several days fretting over how to get to Germany, Kurdistan Airlines kindly offered to put me on a flight to Amsterdam on my original day of departure and buy me a ticket from Amsterdam to Germany.

Problem solved? Not quite.

Flights from Erbil and Sulaimaniyah haven't been taking off for the past several weeks, or if they have, they're extraordinarily (as in 14 hours) late. I called to find out what the problem was, and I was told that Turkey wasn't letting Kurdistan Airlines (and possibly other Kurdish airlines) fly over Turkish air space.

It must be noted that Iraqi and Kurdish airlines are generally unreliable and their problems extend beyond the Turkish restrictions. I have flown out of Erbil twice and didn't have problems either time, but sometimes the planes take off (very) late, sometimes they change their schedules, sometimes they change their arrival airport. Sulaimaniyah airport has also proved unreliable; it's supposed to be getting better, but I've only known one person who successfully took off or landed there on time. I met some foreign correspondents last year who couldn't get back to Baghdad from Sulaimaniyah; they tried four times to fly, even got off the ground once, until the plane turned around. One staged a protest by lying on the tarmac.

But I wasn't entirely surprised to hear that Turkey would let the airlines pass through its airspace. The other option for leaving Iraqi Kurdistan is to drive to the Ibrahim Khalil crossing at the Iraqi-Turkish border (which is five hours from Sulaimaniyah), drive another three to four hours to the town of Diyarbakir, fly from Diyarbakir to Istanbul, and then fly on to your next destination. It is a serious pain, and the worst part can be the border.

The only time I left Iraq through Turkey I spent about five hours at the border. The Turkish authorities were checking every car and every bag. They weren't happy when they found Kurdish rugs in my suitcase and wanted to seize them. I was told I should only be buying Turkish rugs and was asked if any of my books were in Kurdish or if I supported any Kurdish groups like the PKK (which the U.S. and Turkey have labeled a terrorist organization.) No, I said, I just want to get home for Christmas and take my rugs with me! They probably knew that seizing Kurdish rugs from an American would be bad PR, so they let me go.

Why do the Turks care about Kurdish rugs? Turkey is having problems getting into the EU in part because of its oppression of the 20 million Kurds within its borders. The government is as obsessed with minimizing Kurdish culture as it is with eliminating groups like the PKK.

Needless to say, I can't bring myself to drive an additional eight hours and taking two additional flights to get to Frankfurt. I fear my flight will be canceled or take off late, but I have to take a leap of faith that this time, things will run smoothly.


Anonymous said...

Is Austrian Airlines' new service from Irbil to Vienna any more reliable?

Tiare said...

I haven't heard anything about Austrian Air -- all I know is that it's very expensive. I was quoted about $800-$900 one-way. I assume it's more reliable because in general Austrian Air tends not to cancel flights and I assume the Turks will let an established, non-Kurdish airline use their airspace even if the final destination is Erbil. However, I would definitely contact them first to see if they've been able to fly -- they launched their service Dec. 10, I think. P.S. Kurdistan Airlines changed the time again.