Airport Opening Considered First Step to Return of Iraqi Tourism
By BJ Weiner
Special to American Forces Press Service
BASRA, Iraq, Dec. 17, 2004 In July 2005, Basra International Airport in Iraq will officially open for commercial air and passenger traffic.
"The airport was never really functional," said Nolan Smith, assistant area engineer for the Basra office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region South. "It was never formally opened to large commercial flights, primarily because of war. But now, it could open up to cargo flights in the very near future."
The $4.9 million renovation of the terminal includes the air traffic control tower, according to Erick Bush, with construction services for the Transportation and Communications Sector of the Corps' southern district. The navigational aids contract has not yet been awarded, but it is out for bid, according to Bush.
Construction needs not yet funded include upgrades to the fuel farm and electric feeder lines. A Native Alaskan firm, Nana Pacific, won the bid and was to start work in early December.
"The airport is one of highest profile projects we have here, with high likelihood of success: being on schedule, on budget and being fully functional when complete," Bush said.
The airport has managed to avoid the 10 years of war, embargo and looting that have devastated other places in the country, according to Smith. "The art is still there," he said, "and there is a lot of it. The facilities are old and suffer from neglect, but we are hoping that some may be reparable.
"We have to bring up chillers (water cooling units), so they have air conditioning, electrical, plumbing (and) we'll be doing the elevators and escalators, the baggage claim areas, the conveyors, the architectural work, the floors, the ceiling and some pavement marking and striking," he said.
All systems have to be brought to international standards before any cargo or commercial planes can land, said Smith. The Iraqis also need to provide fire engines and to train firemen for the requisite fire station.
"These systems there are good systems, and we are bringing them and the airport back to life," he said. "And, when we do, we'll bring this area of Iraq back to life. Part of our project is to bring in all the security issues at the airport -- baggage claim, scanners, and customs through the security and justice sector -- to keep the insurgents out. Once the security issues are gone, people will find friendly knowledgeable people with a rich history."
Smith explained that Nana Pacific intends to work with the airport authority to hire those people who used to work at the facility. "They will rehire the laborers, the cleaning crews -- all the people who used to work this place. The people will bring this airport back to life, be trained on the new systems, and they'll operate these systems when we're done," he said. "I believe between 800 and 1,000 people used to work here. They sit at home now because there is no work in the area. Their jobs are coming back."
Once the airport opens, the tourism industry will find a welcome home in Iraq. Smith acknowledged that part of that equation depends on the combination of the ports and the airport.
"This country has tremendous assets," he said. "And it depends on commerce -- the kind of commerce the airport and the ports will bring. Before the wetlands were drained, there were 300 million date palms in this area and the fruit was exported. Agriculture was one of this country's biggest exports. Dates in Iraq were the best in the world. The trees were all dug up or moved by the former regime.
"Several major religions have the same center, and it is in this area. The history is all around us. Mesopotamia is second to Israel in that regard. There are tremendous places to see. I intend to bring my family back to this area one day," Smith said.
Bush said he can't predict the kind of impact the airport will have on the region, or what kind of need the Iraqi people will have for the facility. "It will definitely help the infrastructure," he said. "No matter what they want to do, they will be able to make it happen. Opportunities are what they will have; results are hard to predict. But whatever they decide, the system will be in place."
(BJ Weiner is assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)