Iraq's First No-Frills Airline Takes Flight

An upstart airline operating weekly flights between Baghdad and Amman, Jordan, is billing itself as the first no-frills airline to operate out of Iraq, but the company is restricting more than just food and booze on its flights.

The airline is also banning Iraqis, Indians, Pakistanis and other non-Westerners from traveling.

Expat Airways said it is only accepting U.S. and Western citizens on its flights as it tries to capitalize on the thousands of U.S. contractors traveling in and out of the Iraqi capital each month. The airline, which landed its first 42-seat Russian Antonov turboprop at Baghdad International Airport Monday, is thought to be the first to bar passengers based on nationality.

U.S. and European carriers are restricted from the practice, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Ahmed al Musawi, a spokesman for the Iraqi Transportation Ministry, called Expat's flight restrictions ''immoral'' but said there are no federal laws in Iraq banning such actions.

''If they have a contract to do it, we can not stop them,'' said Musawi.

Pro Group, which has offices in Amman and the U.K., launched Expat Airways in conjunction with the Jordanian Air Force. Ashraf Mraish, a managing director at Pro Group, said Jordan's tight visa restrictions -- not racism -- drove the decision to exclude non-Westerners. Jordan imposed strict entry requirements for Iraqis after being overwhelmed by refugees since the start of U.S.-led conflict in Iraq.

'Hard to Do Business'

The United Nations estimates that some 50,000 Iraqis still enter Jordan each month despite tougher border controls. Many live a marginal underground existence because they don't have proper documents.

Some Jordanians blame the refugees for a surge in inflation and housing costs, while fearing the Iraqis will bring their ethnic feuds to Jordan, harming the country's fragile social peace. In 2005, three bombings at Amman hotels, thought to be carried out by al Qaeda operatives based in Iraq, killed more than 60 people. Since then, security procedures throughout the country have tightened considerably, according to Jordanian government officials.

But the flight ban is angering some Iraqis who see it as an unneeded hurdle to economic progress here.

''These rules make it harder for people like me to do business,'' said Bashar Eiyuuden, 34, an Iraqi who works with several U.S. contractors in Bagdad and northern Iraq. Eiyuuden, who sometimes commutes to and from Amman for meetings, said the restrictions ''are racist in nature.''

''Just like Westerners, Iraqis need to move and operate if we are to see true economic progress here," Eiyuuden said.

Mraish said his airline isn't to blame for the restrictions. The carrier's early morning flights out of Baghdad are designed to help speed U.S. and Western contractors through Baghdad International Airport, where daylong delays, overbooking and no-show planes are common. Allowing non-Westerners to board would slow security check-ins and add mountains of paperwork to the ticketing process, he said.

Aimed at Contractors

Contract workers outnumber the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. More than 180,000 contractors are here, according to Defense Department estimates, helping to ferry supplies, control checkpoints and carry out other duties. Some 21,000 of them are Americans, the Department of Defense said. About 118,000 are Iraqis. The rest are from Pakistan, Peru and other foreign countries.

Royal Jordanian Airlines and Iraqi Airways are the only two scheduled commercial carriers flying between Baghdad and Amman. Expat's Baghdad flights will use Jordan's Marka Airport.

Carter Andress, chief executive of American Iraqi Solutions Group, a U.S. Department of Defense contractor in Baghdad, said he has had ''more than a few'' flights canceled or postponed during the dozen or so trips he's made to Baghdad since January 2004.

''It's kind of a headache when you need to get in or out of this place,'' he said. ''I'm a free marketer, so more competition in this arena is better.''

Even so, Andress, who employs about 1,000 Iraqis at his company, said he's hesitant to fly Expat. ''Frankly, I'm weary of contributing to what can be perceived here as bias to the Iraqi people.''

The cost of a one-way ticket on Expat Airways is $450, and the 500-mile trip is no-frills. No food or beverages are served and passengers are prohibited from bringing alcohol onboard. Seats are on a first-come, first-served basis and passengers have to load and unload their luggage. Tickets are paid in cash with no refunds. Reservations can be made by e-mail.