Tehran has high hopes for airport
By Guy Dinmore
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
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
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.