Sunday, July 15, 2007

A New Escape From Iraq - If You're A Westerner

McClatchy reports:

A new no-frills airline that begins weekly flights between Baghdad and Amman, Jordan, in August will only accept certain passengers _ U.S. and Western citizens.

Iraqis, Indians, Pakistanis and other non-Westerners need not apply.

Expat Airways, looking to capitalize on the thousands of contract workers in Iraq, is believed to be the world’s only commercial airline to blacklist such a large swath of nationalities.

Company officials say they believe the carrier’s 8 a.m. flights out of Baghdad beginning Aug. 7 will help speed U.S. and Western contractors through Baghdad International Airport where daylong delays, overbooking and no-show planes are common.

Royal Jordanian Airlines and Iraqi Airways are the only two scheduled commercial carriers flying between Baghdad to Amman, a gateway to Europe and the United States.

More than 180,000 contract workers are on the U.S. tax-funded payroll in Iraq, ferrying supplies, controlling checkpoints and other duties. Some 21,000 of them are Americans. About 118,000 are Iraqis. The rest are from Pakistan, Peru and other foreign countries. U.S. combat forces number about 150,000.

Pro Group, with offices in Amman and the United Kingdom, is launching Expat Airways in conjunction with the Jordanian Air Force. The Baghdad flights will use Jordan’s Marka Airport.

Ashraf Mraish, managing director for Pro Group, based in Amman, said Jordan’s tight visa restrictions drove the decision to exclude non-Westerners. Refugees have overwhelmed Jordan, which has imposed strict entry requirements for Iraqis.

“It would cost us much more to accommodate non-Westerners,” Mraish said this week. “We hope this flight is a solution to make (contractors’) lives easier.”

Despite fares of $450 each way, the 500-mile jaunt aboard a 42-seat Russian Antonov turboprop is strictly no frills. Passengers have to load and unload their own luggage. There is no beverage or meal service. Passengers cannot bring their own booze aboard “for obvious reasons,” according to a recent e-mail Expat Airways sent contractor firms.

“Seats cannot be reserved,” the e-mail stated, “so it will be on a first-come first-served basis and (seats) will not be numbered.”

Expat planes won’t even have a logo painted on them.

In interviews, many contractors recalled cramped, sweltering rides out of Baghdad on U.S. military C-130 transports, or nights of uncertainty spent on cots or the airport floor.

“You never know if the plane’s going to get out or not,” said American contractor Daniel Thorsen. “And if you get dropped off at Baghdad International and your personal security detail leaves you, you’re in trouble.”