Air Transportation: Iran Auctions Bad Memories

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September 30, 2020: Iran is auctioning off twelve retired airliners, including five Boeing 747s, two 727s, three Airbus 300s and two 320s. Minimum (or reserve) bid for all of them is $234,000 (or $19,500 each). The lowest reserve price is $19,500 for a 46-year-old 727-200. Highest reserve price is $26,900 for a 41-year-old 747SP.

The Iranian civil aviation fleet consists of about 300 owned or leased aircraft with a total of 40,00 seats. As of 2019 only about half those aircraft were flyable and those contained 26,600 seats. The twelve airliners being auctioned off are among the oldest of the grounded or retired Iranian airliners. It will be difficult for most foreigners to buy any of these old airliners because of banking sanctions on Iran. It is unclear if any of these retired aircraft can be flown at all. It is believed that all these aircraft are good for is scrap. Apparently, the engines, tires and other frequently replaced items on these aircraft are well worn and not useful as replacement parts for airliners still flying.

After Iran signed the 2015 nuclear weapons control treaty with China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain, the United States and the EU (European Union), most economic sanctions were lifted. Iran promptly ordered over 200 airliners and transports. A year later the U.S. accused Iran of violating the terms of the treaty and reimposed sanctions in 2017. As a result, Iran was only able to take delivery of three Airbus airliners and 13 smaller European turboprop transports before the sanctions halted any additional deliveries. Iran was also able to buy dozens of second-hand airliners because that is a larger and less tightly regulated market. Iran was also able to import a lot of spare parts and aircraft maintenance equipment but not enough to get a lot of its grounded airliners and cargo transports flying again. At the time the 2015 treaty was signed Iran believed it needed to acquire 300 new airliners within five years and nearly 600 within the next ten years to revive its elderly civil air fleet and sterling reputation Iranian airlines once had.

In 1976 Iran Air and Australian airline Qantas were rated the safest in the world. At that time Iran Air had not had an airliner accident since 1966. Qantas was rated a little better because they had gone a little longer without an accident. That Iranian air safety reputation changed after the 1979 revolution, which led to a religious dictatorship taking power. The religious leaders promptly invaded the American embassy and tool the embassy staff hostage. Then there as an eight-year war with Iraq and a growing list of economic sanctions on Iran for sponsoring terrorism and all manner of bad behavior. In the 1990s Iran found it increasingly difficult to buy new airliners or replacement parts for its existing civil and military transports.

By 2006 it got so bad that nearly two percent of Iranian heavy air transports were lost to accidents in one year. While Iranian civil aviation was once among the safest in the world, after 2000 more and more of their airliners, or airlines, were banned from EU airspace because of safety concerns. Iranian airliners still fly to many Middle Eastern and Asian nations with the understanding that the most accident-prone aircraft not be used. There are still a lot of passenger flights inside Iran and, each time there is another accident, the government faces more criticism for the corruption and mismanagement of aircraft maintenance. For the average Iranian this is a more personal issue than Iran being able to import new airliners because the lack of spare parts is only part of the problem. The more immediate one is the poor management of civil aviation. This causes a lot of non-fatal and or injury-free accidents that simply remind the average Iranian that most other countries in the Middle East and the world do not tolerate such sloppiness. Older Iranians remember that before the 1979 revolution Iran was seen as the country with some of the best run airlines in the world. During the 1980s, many of the pilots, managers, maintainers and others who made those legendary safe Iranian airlines run, left the country and were not replaced.

Iranian airline pilots and other aircrew had a more up close and personal view of the safety issues and were not happy with what they saw and flew in. In mid-2018 an Iranian airline pilot was arrested, and released a few hours later. This was all about a TV appearance five days earlier in which the pilot revealed that some Iranian airliners were flying despite unsafe conditions, like mandatory repairs not made. Pilots were ordered to fly anyway even though the safety violations made the aircraft a lot more likely to have an accident or at least be forced to make an emergency landing. Experienced pilots have been fired for refusing to fly these unsafe aircraft. The arrested pilot was quickly released because the TV network he had appeared on was prepared to make a big deal about the arrest and that would have given more Iranians to hit the streets and demonstrate against the government.

Iranian airlines have a lot of customers inside Iran, a large country where flying is the fastest way to get somewhere. Problems with the airlines, especially airline safety, is a popular issue in Iran. For that reason the religious government sees airline safety as a political issue, one that has, so far been more of a problem than an asset to the government.

 


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