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Tehran has high hopes for airport

July 12, 2000

By Guy Dinmore
Financial Times
July 12, 2000

Once a caravanserai on the ancient Silk Road, the airport Iran started before the Islamic revolution will, it hopes, become the biggest in the region, restoring Tehran’s status as the main hub between east and west.

On the edge of the Dasht-e-Kavir desert, 35km south- west of Tehran, the Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKIA), named after the revolutionary leader who died in 1989, is finally taking shape. Just when it will be ready has been the subject of much speculation, but Mohammad Moslehi, the project’s director, says the new target date, delayed because of lack of finance, is set for March 2002. The recent surge in world oil prices, he hopes, will see it on its way.

Originally known as the Tehran International Airport, the project was conceived 30 years ago when traffic levels at Tehran’s existing Mehrabad airport made it clear new space was needed, Iran then being the hub of the Middle East. The history of the airport has reflected tumultuous events since then.

First designed by the US company Tams and its Iranian partners Farman-Farmayan, construction began in 1977 but halted two years later with the onset of the revolution that overthrew the US-backed Shah, Mohammad Reza. In 1980 Iran was forced into an eight-year war with Iraq and work on the runway only began again in 1989. Work on the terminal commenced in 1995.

French architect Paul Andreu created a more cost-effective design for the first terminal, shaped like a gentle arc in white that blends into the distant desert horizon. The shell now complete, the terminal is said to be over 70 per cent finished. The northern runway, to be matched one day by one to the south, is virtually ready, with Torns of France and Siemens of Germany competing to provide the lighting.

So far IR1,100bn ($133m at present rates but three times more at rates prevailing in 1995) and $30m in foreign exchange have been spent on the project, built entirely by Iranian companies and overseen by Aeroport de Paris. Remaining expenditure is estimated at IR600bn and $20m.

“We have the capacity to speed up the project but because of the shortage of funds we are obliged to delay,” Mr Moslehi said.

For travellers using Mehrabad airport, the new airport will not come too soon. Airlines recommend that passengers check in three hours before departure at Mehrabad, which handles 9m passengers a year and military traffic.

The new airport, well beyond Tehran’s urban sprawl, is built on 13,400 hectares, making it one of the largest in the world, according to Mr Moslehi.

Iran is well placed, geographically, to rival Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as a stopover for flights from the US and Europe to south Asia. Politics permitting – Iran and the US have no diplomatic relations or direct flights – IKIA is designed to be able to handle 47m passengers a year once all four terminals and the second runway are in place.

But Tehran has a long way to go before even approaching Dubai International Airport, where passenger traffic grew by 17 per cent in the first quarter of this year to 3m. With recent completion of its second terminal, Dubai has a capacity of 22m passengers a year. A third terminal is planned that would give a capacity of 40m to 45m by 2018.

In the early 1990s Tehran’s new airport was regarded by some critics as a white elephant. Iran’s diplomatic isolation and its war-weakened economy meant that the administration of then President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani gave precedence to other projects, such as his favourite dams. But the foreign policy of detente pursued by Mohammad Khatami, his pro-reform successor elected three years ago, has begun to pay dividends in rapidly increasing tourism and, thanks to rising oil prices, renewed interest by foreign investors.

The 2m or more Iranians estimated to have fled their homeland after the revolution are also returning to live or visit.

T he airport authority is negotiating with foreign and domestic investors to build cargo-handling facilities, hotels and fuel and repair depots. On the site where 3,000-year-old black pottery was found from the days when Iran lay on the trading route to China, modern Iranian red granite is being laid on the terminal floor.

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