COVID-19’s Impact on the Iranian Civil Aviation

The ongoing pandemic of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has hardly gone unnoticed by the global community. Iran was one of the first countries to be harshly affected by the disease with the first reported case in mid-February 2020. After dozens of deaths up to late-February, regional countries gradually started to close their borders to Iranian citizens and consequently suspended air travels. Turkey, Georgia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Oman, and the UAE, to name a few countries that took measures at that time. The hasty measurements even forced some airborne flights to return to Iran. At that point, only a few countries had seriously experienced the unfolding events and travel bans.

As the disease spread, Europe had its eyes on set on banning flights from the top-three countries with COVID-19 cases, namely China, Italy, and Iran. On 2 March 2020, the Swedish Transport Agency suspended IranAir’s traffic rights to operate direct flights to and from Iran. Two weeks later, the German Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure suspended flights from Iran and China. On 12 March 2020, the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic and as of early-May 2020, Iran reports over 94 000 cases and 6 000 deaths.

Since then the global situation has changed immensely and Iran is no more the exception. Many countries are now experiencing what Iran also is, resulting in more closed borders and a big hit for the global travel industry. The Iranian travel industry has suffered greatly for a long time due to, for example, sanctions and economic reasons. Lately, it has suffered more than normal due to the reimposition of sanctions and the UIA Boeing 737 incident in January 2020. A pandemic is the last thing an already troubled industry, especially in Iran, wished for.

Nowadays, Qatar Airways is the only foreign airline still operating flights to Iran on a scheduled basis. All flights to Shiraz, Mashhad, and Isfahan are suspended until 1 June 2020 but a once-daily service to Tehran still runs. Thereby, Qatar Airways is down from a total of thirty-seven weekly flights to only seven. However, the airline also continues its two-weekly cargo service to Tehran, which has been extra appreciated during these times. Tehran’s exclusively international airport, Imam Khomeini Airport (IKA), is seen as the international gateway to Iran handling around 70% of the country’s international passengers in 1397 (March 2018-2019).


Hover your mouse over the points to see detailed passenger numbers and corresponding Iranian months.
Note: “Mar-Apr 20 (Farvardin 1399)” is only a logical estimation based on a 97% year-on-year decrease as stated by the airport manager (see the text below), however, the passenger numbers have not officially been published yet.

This fact has severely affected Tehran Imam Khomeini Airport City (IKAC) as it reported a 60% year-on-year decrease in revenue, 70% in aircraft movements, and 77% in passenger numbers in Esfand 1398 (20 February-19 March 2020). In the following month, Farvardin 1399 (20 March-19 April 2020), IKAC noted a 88% year-on-year decrease in revenue, 91% in aircraft movements, and 97% in passenger numbers. Mohammad Mahdi Karbalaei, IKAC’s managing director, said that despite a two-month suspension of rents for the airport city’s tenants, around 3 000 people, out of a total of 5 000, employed in the airport service sector risk losing their jobs if the negative trend persists.


Hover your mouse over the graph to see detailed passenger numbers.
Note: The minimal difference in Tehran Imam Khomeini Airport’s passenger statistics from the previous graph is due to a few irregular domestic flights.

The other four airports ranked top five in terms of international passengers, saw figures drop by over 80%. The total number of international passengers in Iran decreased by 78% in Esfand 1398 on a year-on-year comparison. The official figure is expected to worsen in Farvardin 1398 (20 March-19 April 2020), as the two Tehran airports’ managing directors have already indicated. This comes at a time when Tehran IKA planned to phase in normal operations and phase out the trial period of limited operations at the new Salam terminal as well as Lamerd Airport’s new international terminal which six-folded the airport’s annual passenger capacity.

 

When it comes to domestic flights, the decrease in passenger numbers has been less severe, yet serious. In Esfand 1398 (20 February-19 March 2020), the total number of domestic passengers dropped from 3 388 794 to 1 716 096, noting a 49% decrease. Some airports, mostly regional ones, have decided or been forced to suspend or restrict operations. Examples as follows:

  • Kish International Airport: Kish Island, one of Iran’s economic free zones, which depends on tourism and trade has restricted the number of daily flights to the island. Since 9 March 2020, only Kish Airlines flights from Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz, and Bandar Abbas may land at the airport. Travel agencies have also been notified to refrain from the sales of package tours to the island, underlining that the tickets are only reserved for Kish residents. The airport handled 2 995 081 passengers in 1397 (March 2018-2019)
  • Noshahr Airport and Ramsar Airport: IranAir’s decision to suspend traffic to Noshahr and Ramsar forced the two airports to close until 30 April 2020. The Mazandaran province, where Noshahr and Ramsar are located, notes an 80% decrease in air traffic according to the province’s airport managing director. Noshahr Airport and Ramsar Airport handled 52 695 and 36 461 passengers respectively in 1397 (March 2018-2019).
  • Bushehr Airport: The airport notes a 60% decrease in the number of weekly flights, from 100 to 40, as the only destinations currently are Tehran, Kharg, and Isfahan. Flights to Mashhad, Iran’s second busiest airport, have been suspended until further notice. The airport handled 441 648 passengers in 1397 (March 2018-2019).
  • Abadan Airport: The airport nowadays handles two to three daily flights, which are chartered for medical personnel, down from fifteen to twenty. The airport handled 733 377 passengers in 1397 (March 2018-2019).


Hover your mouse over the points to see detailed passenger numbers and corresponding Iranian months.
Note: “Mar-Apr 20 (Farvardin 1399)” is based on an official statement made by the airport managing director, however, the passenger numbers have not officially been published yet.

Tehran Mehrabad Airport, exclusively handling the capital’s domestic flights and Iran’s busiest airport noted a 49% decrease in passenger numbers. As of 24 April 2020, Kish Airlines, Zagros Airlines, and Varesh Airlines operate out of Tehran Mehrabad Airport’s terminal 1 in efforts to facilitate social distancing for the passengers.


Passenger numbers

Nowruz, the Iranian new year, in mid-March is followed by a high travel season until early-April. This year, however, it coincided with a pandemic and the high season did not occur, as clearly seen in the graph above. An interesting observation is Tehran Imam Khomeini Airport’s ranking outside of the top three airports, something that has never happened since at least 2010 (2007 was the first year since opening that IKA exclusively handled Tehran’s international traffic) which is as far as public statistics are available. This goes to show how immensely international traffic has been affected relative to domestic travel.

The Iran Civil Aviation Organization (CAO.IRI) has imposed new regulations on Iranian air traffic in order to prevent further outbreak of COVID-19, as quoted below:

  • All international scheduled flights to Iran are only permitted to land at Tehran Imam Khomeini Airport, other airports require special permission.
  • All flights over Iran are only permitted to use Tehran-Mehrabad, Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz, Bandar Abbas, Tabriz, Zahedan, Ahvaz, and Kermanshah airports as an alternate airport in case of diversion.
  • All airlines are required to send detailed passenger lists at least one hour before arrival, as instructed by the Ministry of Health.
  • Passengers must fill in a form, called “passengers affidavit”, delivered to them by the airline before boarding.
  • As per the guidelines of the Ministry of Health, all passengers coming from high-risk countries (currently European countries and the US) or low-risk countries with symptoms or suspected symptoms, will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival. Such passengers will be isolated until their test results are available.
  • Passengers with a positive test result and symptoms of severe illness will be referred to specified hospitals to receive appropriate treatment.
  • Passengers who test negative for COVID-19 will be discharged to conduct a two-week self-isolation at home, for whom post-discharge surveillance follow-ups will be carried out on the third, seventh, and fourteenth day afterwards.
  • Passengers with symptoms who test positive for the COVID-19 will be quarantined and given treatment on location. They will be discharged after full recovery in accordance with medical protocols.

Since the borders closed and flights were subsequently cancelled, a number of repatriation flights have been operated both to and from Iran. Most of the repatriation flights to Iran have been from Turkey and the UAE. Lately, there have been more such flights planned from Europe in particular. This extraordinary situation has also resulted in extraordinary occasions, for example, the first Gulf Air flight between Iran and Bahrain since January 2016 to return Bahraini citizens, as well as the first IranAir flight to Madrid since circa 2006 to return Iranian citizens on 4 and 6 May 2020.

In a statement published on 23 April 2020, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated that in Iran, seven million fewer passengers resulting in a USD 1.8 billion revenue loss will risk 206,900 jobs and USD 4.3 billion in contribution to Iran’s economy. The international trade body hence calls on critical government relief measures to Middle East airlines as the COVID-19 impact deepens. The Association of Iranian Airlines (AIRA) also calls on government relief measures in the form of abolishing the 5% municipal tax on airfares, covering the airlines’ loss of IRR 3000B (estimated to Apr 3) in the form of grants or long-term interest rates, as well as calling on the airports to not pursue debt settlements and fees, instead consider discounts.

 

Photo: Kish International Airport