Iran’s Aviation Industry Is in Dire Straits
A combination of international sanctions and government neglect has hollowed out Iran’s aviation industry, formerly one of the largest and most distinguished in the Middle East.
The secretary of the Association of Iranian Airlines announced earlier this year that the price of plane tickets for domestic flights within Iran had increased by 30% amid rising operational costs and stagnant revenues. 21 airlines currently operate in the country, but according to the head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, only a total of 171 Iranian airplanes remain functional—serving a population of 85 million.
Iran’s aviation industry has been blighted by years of neglect, underinvestment, and grueling sanctions that have made it nearly impossible to purchase new aircraft. Accidents are recurrent and air transportation safety standards have steadily fallen, leading to concern among the many Iranians who choose to fly with the country’s domestic carriers or have no other choice because internal routes are not served by international airlines.
Since the 1979 revolution kickstarted the cycle of Iran’s isolation from the international community, economic sanctions have been levied against different sectors of the economy in an incremental, piecemeal fashion. In the early days, however, aviation was hit particularly hard. The inability of the government to import new planes led to a significant increase in air crashes; London-based aviation expert Alex Macheras estimates that nearly 2,000 Iranians have lost their lives in plane crashes since 1979, while the Aviation Safety Network has estimated that accidents involving Iranian airlines have resulted in 1,755 casualties in the past 44 years.
At a time when several Gulf countries are vying for international supremacy in the hospitality sector, plowing significant funds into their aviation industries, the Islamic Republic is handicapped by a raft of crippling sanctions. These restrictions are widely believed to be the fault of its own destabilizing policies, as well as its failure to prioritize key domains of economic competitiveness, such as tourism, transportation, and sustainability.
The average age of the planes operated by Iran’s airlines is thought to be 28 years, making the nation’s aviation fleet one of the most sclerotic and unsafe in the world. There are reportedly 335 planes owned by the national carriers, but half of them are grounded because spare parts cannot be legally imported or because they are otherwise impractical to be maintained.
Iran Air, the nation’s flag carrier and one of the oldest airlines in the Middle East, possesses an inventory of only 30 aircraft. By contrast, Qatar Airways has a fleet size of 209 planes, and the average age of its aircraft is between five and 8.5 years. Emirates, one of the two flag carriers of the United Arab Emirates, is a leading international airline, with 265 modern aircraft flying to more than 150 destinations worldwide.
Through consistent investment, Emirates has ensured it remains a frontrunner in the global aviation ecosystem. In 2022 alone, it dedicated $2 billion to enhancing its inflight customer experience. Its fleet size now exceeds those of British Airways and Air France, but remains far behind the American and Chinese airlines that are among the largest in the world. Another of Iran’s neighbors, Turkey, has also emerged as a pioneer in air transportation. Turkish Airlines is now a household name in the aviation business, favored by the holidaymakers who rely on its premium services for long-haul trips. The flag carrier of Turkey operates a fleet of 350 aircraft.
The only time in the post-1979 era when Iran’s aviation could have undergone significant modernization was shortly after the approval of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The cherished nuclear deal laid out specific provisions for Iran to enjoy sanctions relief in its aviation sector, allowing it to purchase aircraft directly from American and European manufacturers, including Boeing and Airbus. In 2016, Iran Air signed a $25 billion contract with Airbus to purchase 118 commercial planes. It also inked a separate deal with Boeing for 80 aircraft at a list price of $17 billion. A smaller Iranian carrier, Aseman Airlines, reached an agreement with Boeing for 30 planes valued at $3 billion. In a separate agreement, the Franco-Italian aircraft manufacturer ATR committed to selling Iran 20 new turboprop planes. When former U.S. President Donald Trump revoked the nuclear deal in 2018, all four of these deals were canceled under the threat of U.S. sanctions. Other than 13 ATRs and three Airbus planes that were delivered before the U.S. pullout from the JCPOA, Tehran was unable to collect on its contracts.
Although it has always been possible to smuggle spare parts into Iran in violation of international sanctions, the already-prohibitive costs of doing so have skyrocketed amid the rial’s depreciation against the U.S. dollar. As Iran’s economy continues to nosedive, the country’s aviation industry has morphed into an entirely inefficient enterprise, in which losses markedly outweigh any benefits. In addition, the general economic recession prevailing over the country—exacerbated by the blend of sanctions and government incompetence—has curtailed the demand for air travel, and many Iranian airlines have struggled to stay afloat in recent months.
While the authorities appear reluctant to admit any relationship between the sweeping protests of the recent months and the inertia of economic activity, it is evident that fewer people are willing to spend money on airfare, and that one of the corollaries of the fierce crackdown on the uprising has been a declining interest in domestic and overseas trips.
No End in Sight
As things stand, the resuscitation of the nation’s derelict aviation industry seems an unlikely prospect. The administration of President Ebrahim Raisi has never made any public indication that it intends to modernize the air transportation fleet or bail it out of its decades-long crisis. At the same time, several officials have bragged about the nation’s indigenous capability to produce passenger plans—a highly spurious claim that is already being criticized by Iranians on social media.
Indeed, opposition to a government bailout and upgrades from the West has been a mainstay of Iran’s hardline wing for more than a decade. When the administration of former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani negotiated the purchase of dozens of new planes from Boeing and Airbus in the wake of the JCPOA, his detractors pilloried him for allegedly wasting the nation’s capital on redundant luxury goods. Instead, they argued, any spare cash should go towards higher priorities—notably Iranian military aviation, which has also struggled with modernization since 1979, as well as toward non-aviation causes such as the funding of proxy militias across the Middle East.
In short, the near-term renovation of Iran’s aviation industry remains unlikely. Until Tehran addresses its fleet’s shortcomings, Iranians needing to travel are left with few options but to continue using aged, outdated planes that are increasingly treacherous and costly to operate. Moreover, the government is not ready to engage in negotiations that will draw an end to the sanctions that target the aviation business. In this sense, its priorities have failed to align with the national interest of its constituents.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.