Meraj on the up – despite sanctions
Even with sanctions hanging over its head, Meraj Airlines is among the Iranian carriers plotting ambitious growth during the next five years. Martin Rivers reports.
The lifting of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran may be a watershed moment for the country’s civil aviation sector, but not all domestic operators are seeing immediate benefits.
Meraj Airlines, along with Mahan Air and Caspian Airlines, continues to be shackled by terrorism-related sanctions – a handicap that stems from its alleged support for Iranian military activity in Syria.
The company was founded in 2010 and partly functions as a scheduled passenger airline, deploying three Airbus A320s and two A300-600s from Tehran, Mashhad and Kish.
But it also operates VIP flights on behalf of the Iranian Government with a mixed fleet of A320-family jets, A340s, Boeing 737-200s, 707-300s and Falcon 50s. It is this facilitating role for the government that has aroused the concern of the US Treasury, which accuses Meraj of ferrying “illicit cargo, including weapons” to the Syrian regime.
While that designation stops the airline from dealing with western suppliers, management have no intention of resting on their laurels amid a wider opening up of the sector.
Iraj Ronaghi, commercial vice-president, said that Meraj is in the market for up to 21 aircraft over the next five years – evenly split between wide-bodies, A320s and regional aircraft – with a view to adding 1,000 seats per year.
The regional aircraft will be deployed at two new bases primarily catering for tourism traffic.
“We want to establish two new hubs in north-west and south-east Iran to specialise in 45-minute flights covering major cities and neighbouring countries,” Ronaghi said. The northern hub will offer connectivity with Turkey, the Caucasus and Iraq, while the southern hub will cater for markets in the United Arab Emirates, Oman and “some Persian Gulf islands”.
Meraj currently operates scheduled flights to about 10 domestic points plus four international cities: Istanbul in Turkey, Najaf in Iraq, Kuwait City, and Varna in Bulgaria (seasonal).
Growth of the long-haul fleet will also facilitate a push into Asia, including a long-awaited service to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
Notwithstanding his ambitious plans, Ronaghi admitted that sanctions against the company are limiting its procurement options. French-Italian manufacturer ATR went out of its way to deny speculation about an order from Meraj in February, stressing its compliance with US laws and regulations.
“We have to do it like we did in the past,” the commercial chief shrugged, when asked how the airline can bypass obstacles to re-fleeting. Decades of sanctions have made Iranian carriers experts at procuring aircraft on the black market.
Although relying on brokers could place Meraj at a disadvantage to its domestic rivals, Ronaghi is not overly concerned about losing market share.
He stressed that national plans to acquire 500 aircraft represent a long-term vision that will take upwards of a decade to fulfil.
“I think [the target] is quite big. It depends on the size and the programme of introduction,” the commercial chief explained. “How can a company which owns maybe 50 aircraft all of a sudden operate 500 aircraft? That’s impossible. The best thing to do is to have a programme of replacement and gradually add to the fleet. And I'm sure our authorities will do that.”
Yet, even as he voiced doubts about the timeline for renewal, Ronaghi described 500 aircraft as “not a very high goal” for the national fleet.
He pointed to a raft of advantages that make Tehran more attractive than other hubs in the region, including its geographical location, temperate climate, highly skilled workforce and comparatively low labour costs.
“In other Persian Gulf countries, you can see that most of the pilots and engineers are expatriates, so they are receiving high salaries,” he noted. “Here we have locals, so there will be big savings.
“When Iranian airlines were formed they were number one in the region. I’m sure that in a short period this will be restored.”