Thursday, October 22, 2009

Syria's first air show - with no planes

Executive magazine
By Paul Cochrane in Damascus

It must rank as one of the quietest air shows in modern history. Despite even posters featuring a red devil bi-wing stunt plane pictured flying upside down, the clear blue sky was clear – no helicopters, no airplanes and no screaming jet fighters performing the aerial acrobatics typically seen at international air shows. There weren't even grounded aircraft at the exhibition, near though it was to the Damascus International Airport. The attraction that closest resembled aviation technology was an Iranian-made flight simulator tucked away in a corner.

Still, the first Syria Air Show International Aviation Technology Exhibition was a premiere event for the country. It signifies that the Syrian aviation industry has made small but significant progress over the past few years, including the launch of two private airlines that broke the state-owned Syrian Arab Airlines' (SAA) monopoly. United States President Barrack Obama even extended an olive branch to Damascus this summer, suggesting America may end sanctions against the country's aviation sector.

Nonetheless, the air show raised eyebrows. “I'm wondering: why have a show?” said Nabil Sukkar, managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment. “Who is going to exhibit, as Syria is not buying planes?”

The post-sanctions horizon

Indeed, with American companies dominating the aviation sector worldwide Syria is unable to purchase planes due to the sanctions and instead relies on leases and Russian made aircraft. On the other hand, several company representatives said it was the potential of tapping into an essentially virgin market once the sanctions are removed that prompted them to come to the air show.

“Syria's not very commercial yet, we are here to feel out the market,” a spokeswoman for Moscow-based Sukhoi Civil Aircraft said. “We can't sell in Syria as we have 10 percent American parts in our planes; it's politics, and we don't want to jeopardize sales elsewhere. But when the sanctions are lifted [aviation companies] will flood in,” she added.

Sukhoi, however, was the only major international aviation player at the exhibit. Dominating half of the stands were Iranian aircraft, helicopter and aviation services' companies, while the rest were made up of Syrian aviation companies, the Jordanian Royal Air Force, Jordanian pilot training academies, and airport handling services from Bahrain and Egypt. Iran was over-represented as it is in the same position as Syria when it comes to aviation sanctions imposed by the US, with Syria one of the few countries Iran can viably market to.

State-owned Iranian Aerospace Industries Organization (IAIO) manufactures cargo planes, small wing aircraft and civilian planes developed in partnership with Ukrainian engineers to get around the ban on buying parts from global giants Boeing and Airbus. Asked why the company was at the air show, Amin Salari, member of IAIO's board, said, “It's the first event in Syria so we had to be here.”

Other aviation companies were of a similar mind. “We don't provide services here yet, but we hope to and are looking at the market to sell to private companies and individuals,” said Mohamad Khosravi, managing director of Tehran-based Navid Helicopter Services.

The presence of Iranian companies was indicative of the sentiment that US aviation sanctions will not end anytime soon. The Obama administration may have eased sanctions, with American companies now able to get a license to export to Syria, but so far none have. According to a well-placed source, SAA requested Airbus planes but was rejected by Washington.

“The US is basically saying they are easing exports, but the fact that SAA is going to [Russia's] Tupolev [for two new aircraft] means Syria doesn't believe this,” said Jihad Yazigi, editor of business publication Syria Report.

This was further evidenced when the US pressured Germany in late October to ground the engines of two SAA planes there were under repair, reducing the fleet to just three aircraft.

For Syria's private companies, Pearl Air (which has a 25 percent stake held by SAA) and Cham Wings, one of the air show's sponsors, they are getting around the sanctions by leasing aircraft until they can “buy American,” said one executive off the record.

“It's a double edged sword, it affects us and the owner of the sanctions. If sanctions were lifted, we'd buy more planes, technical training, services, and have deals with maintenance companies. We would buy from America, of course. Millions of dollars in deals could be made,” he said.

The potential is certainly there, with Syria attracting a record four million plus tourists this year and more airlines flying into the country.

“Services are really growing for tourism, investment and business travel - private jets and VIP lounges. Business is up for us in Syria while it is down elsewhere,” said Marwan Hijazi of Sky Aviation Services.

Photograph by Paul Cochrane

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