ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – Airports in the Kurdistan Region are only resuming international flights to Saudi Arabia for religious pilgrims, a Kurdish official said on Wednesday.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stated on Tuesday during his weekly press briefing that Baghdad may lift the international flight ban on the airports in the Kurdistan Region before Newroz, March 21.
Abadi gave as one of the reasons for the potential change in policy is that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has agreed to turn over the full authority of both Erbil and Sulaimani airports to Baghdad.
Baghdad recently decided to allow pilgrims in the Kurdistan Region to fly to the holy city of Mecca to perform the religious practice of Umrah, the non-mandatory lesser pilgrimage that may be performed at any time of the year.
“The flights to Saudi Arabia will start today from Sulaimani International Airport and tomorrow from Erbil International Airports (EIA),” Talar Fayeq, Director-General of EIA, told Kurdistan 24 on Wednesday.
Annually, tens of thousands of people in the Kurdistan Region perform Umrah, but the number has decreased substantially over the past few years, according to data released by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Fayeq mentioned that, despite the Iraqi premiere's remarks on Tuesday, no date had yet been set for the two Kurdish airports to resume other international flights.
Regarding the federal government's authority in Erbil's airport, Fayeq said that the facility has been under the direct control of the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority (ICAA) for over a decade.
“By the full federal authority," she added, "he [Abadi] might have meant the passport control system and security of the airport because these are the only two sections that are not under their direct control.”
Iraq's federal government imposed the international flight ban on Sep. 29 as retaliation for the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum held four days earlier, which saw 93 percent of the population voting for secession from Iraq.
Since then, Baghdad has extended the ban twice, most recently on Feb. 26, prolonging the restriction on international travel until May 31.
Kurdish officials have repeatedly stated that the ban has severely damaged the economy of the Kurdistan Region, forcing many companies to close offices and lay off staff.
“The airport has no revenue now. We operate the airport 24/7 only to provide service to Iraqi Airways, but in return, we receive nothing from Baghdad,” Fayeq noted, stating that it is financially difficult for the airport to continue operating in such a way because there are substantial expenditures and no incoming revenue.
According to the official, the amount Baghdad owes to Erbil International Airport has been accumulating since 2010 and has reached $37 million.
Each month, Erbil airport requires $3.3 million to operate, the airport director said, adding that, since the airport now generates no revenue, the KRG has paid the monthly expenditure of the airport since the international flight ban took effect in September.
Before the blockade began, Erbil and Sulaimani airports combined were making between 40 and 50 percent of Iraqi's total daily flights, airport officials previously said.
“The number of flights and tourists has dramatically decreased in Erbil airport [since international flight ban imposed in Sep. 2017]. Before this, on some days, the number of flights were reaching 60 per day, but now it is about 5 or 6 flights,” Fayeq concluded.
Editing by John J. Catherine