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Tickets To Paradise

Flying Iran's hazardous skies.

12:00 AM, Jul 21, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Pretend that Iran has a late night variety-comedy show hosted by a Johnny Carson-like personality. One whose off-color jokes send the network's legal department scrambling to affect some manner of damage control and negotiating out-of-court settlements.

"Two Iranians are talking to one another. The first one says 'I am tired of this life, I want to be with Allah in paradise.' The second responds 'that's easy. Just go buy a ticket on Caspian Airlines.'" (Punctuated by a burlesque-style drum beat and cymbal clank.)

The age and lack of proper safety guidelines in Iran are no joke, however, as the crash last week of the Russian-made Tupolev Tu-154M airliner operated by Caspian Air 16 minutes after take-off from Iran's Imam Khomeini airport. The death toll in this accident is set at 168 passengers and crew, making it the worst in 6 years. The next most deadly previous crash was in 2003 of another Russian-made aircraft, an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo aircraft not normally employed as a passenger carrier.

This was also the third crash of a Tu-154 model in Iranian service in the last seven years. In February 2006, a Tu-154 operated by Iran Airtour, a subsidiary airline owned by Iran's national air carrier, Iran Air, crashed during a landing in Tehran, killing 29 of the 148 people on board. Another Tupolev also operated by Airtour crashed in 2002 in the mountains of western Iran, killing all 199 persons on board.

The Tu-154 has been in service since 1972 and has been built in several variants with 247 models still in operation around the world. A special configuration of the aircraft even serves as Russia's zero-gravity "vomit comet" aircraft used for training its cosmonauts. The Tu-154M model that crashed in Iran last week is the latest version of the aircraft and was a significant upgrade from the original design. Production was to have ended in 2006, but a limited number continue to roll off the line at the Aviakor plant in Samara, Russia.

Dangerous airlines with aircraft falling apart are not a novelty in poor nations. There are quite a few nations that have a ramshackle domestic airline fleet, but at the same time they manage to maintain aviation regulatory standards for their international flights. This is generally due to their ability to replace older-model airliners, some of them of Russian-made, with newer Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Russian domestic airlines, for example, have had a checkered aviation safety record, but its national carrier now operates a fleet of mostly U.S. and European-made aircraft.

This equation works for almost every nation except Iran. The 1996 U.S. Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) prohibits the sale of most U.S. and European-made commercial aircraft to Iran. As a consequence the country continues to utilize a combination of aging western 1970s and used 1980s and early 1990s Russian aircraft--all of which are becoming increasingly unsafe. Caspian Airlines is a typical case in point. It is a Russian-Iranian joint venture which, up until before the crash, operated six used Tu-154Ms as its entire fleet.

But, the poster child for the ills of Iran's passenger aircraft fleet is the old Boeing 707. Most airlines around the world retired these models long ago, but Iran's Saha Airlines has the dubious distinction of being the world's last airline to keep a 707 in scheduled passenger service. A U.S. aircraft engineer whom I spoke to at one of the Iran air show expositions in Kish Island in the Persian Gulf told me "these 707s are still flying, but they should not be. None of the automated systems on-board work anymore and the crew has to do almost everything manually."

Sanctions as rigid as the ILSA dictates means that when it comes to commercial jets the highest common denominator is still fairly low in Iran. One of the ancient 707s that is supposed to be best of all the models available in the country is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's personal aircraft--Iran's Air Force One equivalent. It was described as a battered and worn-out when it taxied up to the red carpet for last month's summit in Ekaterinburg, Russia. Next to the other heads of states' VIP jets it looked like the flatbed truck from The Beverly Hillbillies parked next to the usual assortment of Mercedes, Lexus and BMW automobiles on Rodeo Drive.