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Baghdad Airport Still in a Holding Pattern

Like others in Iraq, the reconstruction project is off to a slow start, stalled by violence, insecurity.

May 21, 2003|Mark Fineman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Don't look for a Starbucks, a Disney Store or Burger King at the 20-year-old, French-built terminal that still bears the words "Saddam International Airport." And don't bother calling a travel agent anytime soon.

Hoping to reconnect this long-isolated nation to the outside world, U.S. military and business forces are working around the clock to reopen the airport for commercial use. Air Force engineering teams are toiling in 110-degree heat to fill 10 bomb craters on the main runways -- the calling cards of allied forces trying to cut off a potential escape route for Saddam Hussein and his inner circle.

David Jones, the senior U.S. advisor to what's left of Iraq's Civil Aviation Authority, said over the weekend that he hopes to reopen Baghdad International to commercial traffic "as quickly as possible" for reasons both financial and symbolic.

"It's important for Iraq to see that commerce is coming in," he said, "and to see that Iraq is getting back to normal."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 03, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Dubrovnik Airport -- A May 21 article in Section A on the reconstruction of Baghdad's international airport said Dubrovnik Airport in Croatia was under U.S. control at the time of a 1996 plane crash that killed 35 people, including Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. The airport was under Croatian control.

The stalled airport reconstruction project illustrates how few immediate benefits Iraqis and their economy are getting from what is expected to become billions of dollars that U.S. taxpayers will spend to rebuild the country.

The work has been delayed by continuing violence and insecurity, principally in Baghdad. Seven prime U.S. contractors hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development to manage Iraq's reconstruction are just beginning to trickle into a capital city that top U.S. commanders say still isn't safe.

For example, Washington-based SkyLink Air & Logistical Support, which won an 18-month USAID contract worth millions this month to bring the airport up to international standards and perhaps manage it for as long as two years or even more, has only a handful of engineers here. They are just completing an initial assessment of what's needed to make the airport safe for civilians.

But in the case of Baghdad International, Jones said during a recent airport tour, lawyers also are to blame.

The ultimate challenge, he said, is getting all the equipment in place at the long-neglected and underused facility to satisfy International Civil Aviation Organization safety standards, which would relieve the U.S. military occupiers of legal liability in the event of an accident.

Jones cited the April 3, 1996, crash of a U.S. Air Force Boeing 737, which slammed into a mountainside, killing Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 34 others on board, as it approached the Dubrovnik Airport in postwar Croatia. The accident, caused in part by uncertified navigational aids and other landing equipment at the U.S.-controlled airport, triggered a blizzard of lawsuits against the U.S. government filed on behalf of the trade mission members on board.

An Air Force investigation into the crash, which filled 17,000 pages and 22 volumes, raised the safety bar for allowing commercial air traffic in such situations.

For now, Jones said, the only aircraft permitted to land here are those of humanitarian aid organizations, the U.S. military, its allies and its hired private contractors, which include DHL.

DHL has started overnight-air service into Baghdad. On Sunday, the first commercial airliner touched down, a Kuwait Airways Airbus 310 packed with 10 tons of humanitarian supplies and airline officials hoping to land at the ground floor of Iraq's commercial aviation industry.

U.S. Air Force Col. Ron Watkins, who is managing the airport, said there is just one operational runway, and yet six to 10 flights, on average, are landing each day.

"The limitation is not here in Baghdad," he said. "It's the coordination process -- and safety factors."

Bringing the airport up to those international safety standards "is a monumental task," Watkins added. "It's been attacked. It's been through a war."

He quickly added that well- focused targeting by allied air assaults spared the terminal, the control tower and other airport buildings but that the war knocked out power, plumbing, sewer and water systems throughout Baghdad and its main airport. "Those are the hard things," he said.

Lt. John Welsh, a 37-year-old U.S. Army civil affairs reservist from Connecticut, has been the point man working to restore those basic services at the airport. Welsh, an engineer for aviation giant Pratt & Whitney Corp., has been working the neighborhoods near the airport to ferret out former Iraqi airport employees, put them to work on rigging temporary repairs and pay them out of petty cash.

Hiring the maximum number of Iraqis, though, is a knotty task. Security rules require that Welsh provide one U.S. military escort for every four Iraqis, and ground forces here already are spread thin. So Welsh has been doing some of the jerry-rigging himself at an airport that was crippled by 12 years of international sanctions and is largely patched together with cannibalized parts and Iraqi ingenuity.

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