January 12, 2017 was such a memorable day in Iranian aviation history that local television broadcast it live.
The focus was on the arrival of an Airbus A321, registered EP-IFA, at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport, marking the first delivery of a new aircraft to any Iranian airline since 1994.
Even the delivery 23 years ago of two Airbus A300-600s was the result of special permission as compensation for another of the type shot down by the USS Vincennes in 1988 over the Persian Gulf.
The last regular delivery of any factory-fresh Western aircraft to Persia was in 1980 when an A300B2 was ferried to Tehran as part of an order of six made in 1978 prior to the 1979 revolution.
“This aircraft, registered EP-IBS, is still flying safely, despite all the imposed sanctions and problems they made for us, all thanks to Iranian maintenance crews. We will fly it as long as we can”, pledged soft-spoken Iran Air chairman and chief executive Farhad Parvaresh, in an exclusive interview with AirlineRatings in Toulouse prior to the delivery flight.
In the last few decades, as Iran became internationally more and more isolated due to suspicions about its nuclear program, the country had to improvise and rely on middlemen to keep its airlines aloft.
All Western aircraft contain American components and sales of new aircraft were out of the question.
This all changed after in 2015 a nuclear deal was signed between Iran and the UN Security Council and the EU, starting a process to end the embargoes and sanctions.
In January 2016, an agreement was signed between Iran and Airbus for an order of 118 aircraft from the European manufacturer, made up of 21 A320s, 24 A320neos, 27 A330s, 18 A330neos, 16 A350-1000s and twelve A380s.
Airbus then had to obtain all the necessary licenses and permissions for the export of the aircraft, including US-built parts, to Iran. On December 22, a final contract comprising 100 new aircraft was signed but in a big blow to Airbus, the A380s had been dropped.
“The necessary infrastructure in Iran would not be ready in the near-term future to accept the A380, so we decided to drop it and stay with the other new aircraft first to get more familiar with them,’’ Parvaresh said. “As Iran Air we presently have no plans to buy any Boeing 747s or A380s.”
In terms of widebody aircraft, the airline will receive both the A350-1000 and the Boeing 777-300ER in a separate, still-to-be -approved deal with Boeing.
This currently comprises 80 aircraft (50 737 MAX 8s, 15 777-300ERs and 15 777-9s).
In addition, Iran Air is close to signing a final deal with Toulouse-based regional aircraft maker ATR for 20 aircraft, bringing the total of new airframes arriving in the next 11 years to 200.
Iran Air denies it has any further interest in products from other manufacturers or even larger aircraft.
“This is sufficient capacity, maybe in the future there is a need for bigger aircraft, we will see,’’ Parvaresh said.
The new arrivals are eagerly awaited, as the 23 active aircraft are over 23 years old on average and there is still about the same number of aircraft are in storage.
“Some are under maintenance, and some are waiting for engine replacements for example, but we think it wouldn’t be economical to bring them back and spend money on them as we are receiving new aircraft,’’ the chief executive said. “Within the next five years we will gradually phase out some of the other types, like the Fokker 100s or the MD-82s, of which we operate four each, as well as older Airbuses.”
With the exception of one freighter, all 747s have already been grounded for some time and the 747SPs being the last ones to retire in 2016.
Iran Air’s fleet has shrunk considerably recently, with Pavaresh noting “six years ago we had 54 aircraft flying.”
And it doesn’t look better for his competitors, including the market leader, privately owned Mahan Air.
“There are 150 passenger aircraft flying now in Iran altogether, about hundred are stored, for all the 16 airlines we have,’’ he said.
The six aircraft currently registered in Iran — before the latest delivery — were all built after the year 2000 and are second-hand A340-600s operated by Mahan Air.
Iran Air used to have daily flights from Tehran to New York on Boeing 747SPs 40 years ago and Parvaresh sees great potential for a major hub operation once the infrastructure is ready:
“Due to our location we can offer a flight time of up to two and a half hours less between Europe and Southeast Asia than via the current Gulf hubs, so it would be less fuel- and time-consuming and you could offer less expensive tickets. We all have to work on that to make it happen.”