U.S. sanctions have made it all but impossible to refresh the country’s ageing fleet of planes, meaning some $44 billion in orders with the likes of Airbus and Boeing have had to be shelved.
Local airlines have also been forced to cancel some international services because of pressure from Washington on third countries. The most recent to do so was Mahan Air, the country’s second largest airline, which has said it will stop flying to the Italian cities of Rome and Milan at the end of the year. Iranian airlines sometimes find it difficult to even refuel overseas.
To add to all those problems, it seems airline passengers are now staying away too.
According to officials at Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKIA) in Tehran, the number of passengers flying through the country’s most important gateway fell by 8.5% in the first half of the current Iranian year (which runs from late March to late September) to just under 4 million. At the same time, the number of flights operating in and out of the airport fell by almost 16% to 23,221.
Those numbers are year-on-year declines. But the longer-term picture is even worse. Compared to the same period in 2017, passenger numbers are down 21% and the number of flights has slumped by more than a quarter, at 26.2%.
The problem of overcapacity is getting worse rather than better. In June this year, the new Salam terminal opened at IKIA, adding a further 5 million passengers a year of capacity.
There are several good reasons why locals may choose not to fly, not least because ticket prices are said to have risen sharply as a result of the falling value of the Iranian rial. Some may also be nervous about the rather mixed safety record of local airlines – there have been 10 fatal accidents in the country since 2009, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
But international travelers look to be staying away as well. While local airlines have been forced to suspended some of their cross-border flights, carriers from outside Iran have also halted their services to the country over the past 18 months, including the likes of Air France, British Airways and Dutch airline KLM, with a common refrain being the routes are “not commercially viable”.
The fall in passenger numbers means the city’s main airport is struggling for business. In an effort to improve its performance, earlier this year the authorities allowed domestic flights to land at the airport for the first time. Previously, the city’s second airport, Mehrabad International, handled most domestic flights, with a few also using Payam International Airport.
The government has been trying to make it easier for people to visit, for example offering visa-free entry to Chinese citizens. During the summer it even ordered immigration officials to stop stamping the passports of arriving tourists, lest the marks draw unwelcome attention at other international frontiers. It is likely to require something more fundamental than that to convince the missing travellers to return though.