Iran Sees Foreign Airlines Come and Go, Regional Airlines Largely Untouched

Foreign airlines are one after another suspending and cancelling their services to Iran. Tehran, a destination often being praised by the airlines at the launch ceremonies, became a short-lived business as it failed to live up to the expectations of many airlines. As a result of the new political and economic climate, many airlines that were eager to resume or launch services to Iran following the sanctions relief in January 2016, find themselves back in the same situation as before. While schedules regularly change, this is a summary of recent major developments of foreign airlines’ air services to Iran.

  • Air Asia resumed its Kuala Lumpur-Tehran flights with three weekly flights in June 2016, increased to four weekly flights in February 2017, and later intented to increase to five weekly flights. The route was cancelled in April 2018. The airline’s other thrice-weekly route between Bangkok and Tehran, which was launched one day before the Kuala Lumpur service, was cancelled only a few months later in December 2016.
  • Air Astana launched a three weekly service between Almaty and Tehran in June 2016. The frequency was increased to four weekly flights in September 2017, and will be cancelled on 31 July 2018 citing ‘remarkable decrease in passenger numbers’.
  • Air France returned to Tehran with three weekly flights in April 2016 after a eight-year gap. In April 2018, the operations were transferred to their millennial airline “Joon” and on 1 August 2018 the airline plans to reduce the weekly flights to one weekly, before the route is suspended on 18 September 2018. The service reduction in August is not reflected in the airline’s booking system, however it shows a planned resumption on 1 April 2019.
  • Alitalia increased its five weekly flights to daily as of March 2016. In October 2016, the operating aircraft was upgraded from Airbus A320 to A330, further increasing the seat capacity by 55 percent. The Italian carrier has kept the frequency on Rome-Tehran flights intact, but returned to A320 service in October 2017.
  • Austrian Airlines returned to Tehran and Iran on March 2014 with five weekly flights after a one-year hiatus. The frequency was gradually increased and eventually reached two daily flights in March 2016. As of now, Austrian Airlines has not changed its Tehran service, except for minor changes in the beginning of Summer 2019. Instead it plans to axe its Isfahan and Shiraz flights, launched on September 2016 and July 2017 respectively, on 15 September 2018.
  • Belavia cancelled its once-weekly service between Minsk and Tehran in October 2016. The route had briefly been increased to two weekly flights in September 2016.
  • British Airways resumed its London-Tehran route in September 2016 with one daily flight, but decreased to five weekly flights in October 2017. The service hits three weekly flights as minimum for a period in January-February 2019 and moves to four weekly flights as of 5 June 2019.
  • Etihad Airways cancelled its Abu Dhabi-Tehran service in January 2018. The airline has ended flights to a number or major destination as it is undergoing a structural and strategy change. It operated three weekly flights in April 2015 and increased the frequency to seven and later to fourteen weekly flights when the sanctions relief took effect. Gradually the service frequency was decreased to ten, seven, five, two weekly flights, and ulimately zero.
  • Germania started flights from Berlin and Düsseldorf to Tehran in February 2015. In January 2016, the once-weekly Düsseldorf service was cancelled. The Berlin route is operated as normal.
  • KLM resumed flights in October 2016. The four weekly service was decreased to three weekly in March 2018 and will be suspended on 24 September 2018. The airline says it is “as a result of the negative results and financial outlook for the Tehran operation”.

    Air France-KLM statement (click to enlarge)
  • Lufthansa was early to expand its operations to Iran with an upgrade from Airbus A340-600 to Boeing 747-400 on its daily Frankfurt-Tehran flights as of March 2016. The Boeing 747 still operates the route, however, the airline saw its resumption of a thrice-weekly Munich-Tehran service in July 2016 being ended in September 2017.
  • S7 Airlines was the second Russian airline to operate flights to Iran after Aeroflot when it opened flights between Moscow and Tehran in June 2017. The flights were almost exclusively cancelled until September 2017, when the service was terminated for real. The airline’s plans to resume the route between Moscow and Tehran, and to launch flights between Saint Petersburg and Tehran in June 2018 until September 2018 were also never materalised.
  • Thai Airways surprised with a launch of flights between Bangkok and Tehran in October 2016. The four weekly route was cancelled in March 2018, but Thai could not let go of the Nowruz season and scheduled six one-off flights in March-April 2018.

Etihad Airways and Belavia’s exists dissolve the city pairs Tehran and Abu Dhabi, Minsk. The other cancelled services to Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Almaty, Paris, Amsterdam, and Moscow are still operated by other airlines.

Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Alitalia, Ukraine International Airlines, Aeroflot, and Aegean Airlines are the only European carriers (excluding Turkish) that were present in Tehran prior to the sanctions relief in January 2016, and are still present now. The first five carriers note an overall increase in weekly seat capacity since 2015. The change for the latter carrier has not been estimated as its frequency shifts on a monthly basis.

June 2015 June 2018 Change (circa)
Lufthansa (Frankfurt) Daily, Airbus A340-600 Daily, Boeing 747-400 +25%
Austrian Airlines (Vienna) Daily, Airbus A320 2x Daily, Airbus A320 +100%
Alitalia (Rome) 5x Weekly, Airbus A320 Daily, Airbus A320 +40%
Ukraine International Airlines (Kiev) 3x Weekly, Embraer 190/Boeing 737 5x Weekly, Boeing 737 +100%
Aeroflot (Moscow) 4x Weekly, Airbus A320 Daily, Airbus A320 +75%

British Airways currently remains as the only European carrier that launched flights post-January 2016 planning to stay in Tehran.

In contrast, Iranian and regional carriers have not reacted as negatively. IranAir maintains its biggest expansion in decades as it increased flights to Europe in Winter 2017/18 and launched three new routes to Tbilisi, Belgrade and Moscow this year. Furthermore, IranAir plans to launch flights to Sydney, via an Asian city, in Winter 2018/19. Mahan Air has not made major changes, it also continues to operate its two new services to Barcelona and Belgrade, launched in June 2017 and June 2018 respectively. Qeshm Air’s two new, and currently only, European routes to Brussels and Hamburg, launched in June 2017, continue to be operated. The Hamburg service to Tehran, routed via Tabriz remains at one weekly flight, while the route between Tehran and Brussels was increased to two weekly flights as of February 2018.

The seat capacity to regional airport hubs and visa-free countries remain largely unaffected, including Turkey, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Kuwait. As Serbia recently lifted visa requirements for Iranian citizens, the capital Belgrade has become a popular destination for Iranians. From not existing in March 2018, the route between Tehran and Belgrade is now operated five times a week by three airlines; IranAir, Qeshm Air, and Mahan Air. According to Mehr News Agency, Air Serbia plans to launch flights between Tehran and Belgrade by September 2018.
The air traffic between Iran and Turkey has not seen any recent major changes. Pegasus Airlines, Atlasglobal, and Turkish Airlines all retain their frequencies, which is one daily flight each for Pegasus Airlines and Atlasglobal, and five daily flights for Turkish Airlines. However, Turkish Airlines has changed the operating aircraft from mixed Airbus A321/Airbus A330 service to mainly A330 on the four daily flights originating from Istanbul Atatürk Airport. The fifth daily flight from Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen is still operated by Boeing 737.
Following the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis, Qatar Airways increased its capacity to Iran. Nowadays, Tehran almost exclusively sees widebody aircraft on the 18 weekly flights. The Doha-Tehran route has become one of the world’s shortest Boeing 777, Boeing 787, and Airbus A350 route. Meanwhile, the four weekly Shiraz service was upgraded from Airbus A320 to A330 in November 2017 and is scheduled to continue until at least October 2018.
Other regional airlines such as Emirates, Kuwait Airways and Oman Air keep their services, mainly operated to Tehran and Mashhad, intact as well. Newly-established Omani low-cost carrier Salam Air launched a three weekly service between Muscat and Shiraz in February 2018 and eyes to launch flights to Tehran and Mashhad later this year.

As a result of some major airlines leaving, the well-established airlines in Iran with extensive networks, such as Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways, will make sure to regain position and fill the void left by them.


Photo: Mohammad Ali Marizad, Tasnim News Agency