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The Swedish project to build an airport in Iraqi Kurdistan

Published onsdag 30 december 2015 kl 16.39
"It was in really terrible condition, the equipment was a mess."
(2:44 min)
Mikael Henriksson today, and the international airport in Erbil. Photo: Luftfartsverket and Jeffrey Beall
Mikael Henriksson today, and the international airport in Erbil. Photo: Luftfartsverket and Jeffrey Beall

Nearly 10 years ago, in the middle of the war in Iraq, a group of Swedish aviation experts arrived in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan to transform one of Saddam Hussein’s old military air bases into a modern international airport.

It was a job that started as a flight controller’s worse nightmare, says Mikael Henriksson, one of the Swedes who worked on the project.

“It was a disaster, it was in really terrible condition,” he tells Radio Sweden. “I remember when we started, nothing was by the rule book. But we just had to plug as many holes as we could.”

Today Mikael Henriksson is a project manager at LFV, the Swedish Civil Aviation Authority. But ten years ago he was one of a group of Swedes who came to Erbil, today the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to take one of the world’s longest runways and make it into a fully functional international airport, in the middle of a warzone.

A major task was teaching the local personnel how an airport works, everything from flight control to baggage handling, so they could take over the airport when the project was over. Mikael Henriksson says their level of knowledge varied a lot.

“The personnel had very low or little training for the jobs they had to do,” he says. “The equipment, for flight control, maintenance, the radios, it was all a mess.”

The project lasted three years, from 2006 to 2009, and was run by the Swedish airport operator Swedavia for the Kurdistan regional government. Initially, Mikael Henriksson says,  many of the local population got scared when they heard the sounds of the aircraft. But, he says, that changed as time went on.

“When people had heard airplanes a few years before that meant they had to quickly take cover, but now they began to see the planes as something positive, something that gave something to the region,” he says.

The first regular flights landed in Erbil in December 2006. Today the airport has daily departures for many cities in both Europe and the Middle East, and hosts 1.5 million passengers a year.

Mikael Henriksson says it was a long road getting there, but he’s proud of what the Swedes accomplished.

“It was a challenge to come from a well-established aeronautical nation like Sweden and to see that. It was almost a panic in the beginning,” he says “but after a few years we had a meeting with the International Civil Aviation Authority, and got a great review. That should be attributed to the airport personnel who accomplished so much. They were great people.”

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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