Iran Air Orders a Ton of Airplanes, and It Might (Eventually) Need Them

Iran Air

If you’re looking for classic cars, Cuba is the place to go. But classic aircraft? Head to Iran. For years, sanctions have prevented Iranian airlines from acquiring new aircraft, and the result is that is has some of the oldest Boeing, Airbus, and, yes, Fokker models flying. With sanctions relaxed in light of the nuclear deal, Iran has gone on a shopping spree. These airplanes are all destine for the state-owned flag carrier, Iran Air. Whether they end up taking delivery of all these airplanes or not remains to be seen, but in the long run, there will be a need. It’s just a question of how long that will be.

It’s not just Iran Air that operates ancient aircraft. (Saha Air Lines, until as recently as a couple years ago, was the last passenger 707 operator in the world. Here’s a trip report.) But it’s Iran Air that, as the flag carrier of Iran, is getting all the attention here. And it’s the one Iranian airline that has has a history dating back to before the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Iran Air Retires

Iran Air can trace its origins back to 1944, and it developed like many other airlines at that time. It raced to add new aircraft as they were introduced, bringing new far-flung destinations on line. It had 747s in the 1970s (which flew nonstop to New York). The airline had even placed orders for Concordes. It had designs on LA and Sydney, among others. Iran Air was a “Middle East carrier” before it was cool for Delta to hate them. But any ambitions the airline had were promptly killed in the Iranian Revolution.

Links to the US were cut quickly. Then the long war between Iran and Iraq took its toll. Even when Iran Air wanted to grow, it couldn’t buy new airplanes. It had to resort to maintaining its ancient fleet and acquiring second-hand aircraft when it could find them. The airline became mostly irrelevant outside of Iran, but it never actually went away. It just kept soldiering on as its fleet aged further.

A look at shows what the airline has today. It still operates the 747SPs it took delivery of back in the 1970s. Its newest 747 is from 1988 and has been flown by Martinair, Qantas, Singapore, ACT Airlines, and the short-lived Ankair. It also has a ratty fleet of Airbus aircraft with a few A300s and A310s that are more than 20 years old. Its few A320s have been around the block as well. To round things out, it has a gaggle of former TAM Fokker 100s. This is not the fleet of a modern airline.

When the nuclear deal was reached, part of the agreement was a loosening of sanctions. Iran has been struggling economically and only made this deal with the hopes of kick-starting some growth. This change allowed Iranian airlines to finally acquire new aircraft. And Iran didn’t waste any time reloading Iran Air’s fleet.

Iran placed an order for 118 aircraft with Airbus and will get another 20 to 40 from ATR. Iran says these airplanes are all going to Iran Air, and that means HUGE growth for the airline.

From Airbus, Iran Air will get 21 A320ceos, 24 A320neos, 27 A330ceos, 18 A330-900neos, 16 A350-1000s, and yes, 12 A380s. ATR will provide the ATR-72 turboprop. If this seems insane, it is. I can’t imagine that Iran Air has the technical and organizational capability to expand its fleet like this. It’ll be a complete mess operationally if it actually happens. Commercially? It could be an even bigger mess in the short term.

It’s true that Iran is huge. The country is one of the 20 largest countries in the world with more than 80 million people. That’s about the same size as Germany. Tehran itself has a tenth of the population with more than 8 million people. That’s bigger than Hong Kong, Singapore and any US city except for New York. It’s more than triple the population of Dubai. And its metro area has more than 15 million people. The potential for Tehran to be a major aviation market is undeniable.

But Iran is a relatively-closed nation that has suffered mightily from an economic perspective. This isn’t a country that’s going to be able to live up to its potential as a large and growing air travel market for years.

That, of course, makes one wonder how real this order is. Will an A380 ever wear Iran Air colors? And if so, how long will it be before Iran Air realizes that’s a terrible idea? Maybe they won’t be delivered for 10 years. Maybe the numbers will change. But one thing is clear. There is huge opportunity for long-term growth in this market, as long as Iran doesn’t screw itself and violate the nuclear deal.

Without question Iran can use a ton of new A320s. There are 10 metro areas within Iran alone that have more than a million people. And of course there are all the other populous cities within a 6 hour flight. It can clearly also use a lot of widebodies as well. But it’s hard to imagine demand being able to ramp up as quickly as supply. That’s especially true with oil prices being so low. Iran can’t generate nearly the amount of cash it had hoped would be possible when oil prices were so much higher.

If Iran can avoid destroying itself, then the aviation market in the country will become very important in time. And Iran Air will benefit down the road. But there’s a lot of uncertainty that could kill this opportunity between now and then. Regardless, it appears that the plan for Iran Air is to go full speed ahead.

[Original Iran Air photo Ikarasawa/Flickr/ CC By 2.0]

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27 comments on “Iran Air Orders a Ton of Airplanes, and It Might (Eventually) Need Them

  1. Iran wants Europe to be unwilling to re-impose sanctions. They will never operate A380s on an ongoing basis. I mean, they could wet least some for short term pilgrimages. But they give Airbus a splash, and cement economic ties that help to split Europe from the US in the event a Republican wins the Presidential election and actually does what they say they’re going to do.

    1. I totally agree with Gary. There may be no higher-profile way to ingratiate itself with Europe and at the same time create an incentive for Boeing to try to keep the doors open for future orders. I scoff at the idea that Iran would ever buy Boeing, but “you never know”.

    2. You’re probably partly in the true about Iran wishing to place itself in a position to not be subject to sanctions anymore.
      But saying that a country with +80M people, mostly young, with an expat base worldwide (Ok, probably a lot older, but 2nd/3rd generation is still a powerful market), a huge O&G market, tourism potential, … will never operate 380s is like saying they don’t need 747s, which they still operate today !
      I’ll bet we’ll soon see many of the ME3 A380s rotating daily in and out of Iran !…

      1. It’s not believable that Iran buys A380s and do not use of them! Now, Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran is ready and they are upgrading other airports to use A380. One undeniable fact is that Iran, despite suffering 40 years of sanctions, are still an important country in the Middle East. This shows that the country could be more powerful without sanctions and maybe you see many more flights over Iran’s sky in the not too distant future.

  2. I heard about this a while ago and scratched my head a bit as well. The real story here is that it’s an entirely European aircraft order, namely French. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least that there was a backstory that isn’t being told here.

    1. At least part of it is in the public domain !
      Additionally, the Iranian air transportation infrastructure will be enhanced through a separate agreement for development of the country’s air navigation services with assistance in airport and aircraft operations, harmonisation of its air regulations, training on the technical and academic levels, guidance in maintenance and repair operations, as well as industrial cooperation.

  3. Cranky, I’ve heard of the Airbus “NEO” models, but what are the “CEO” models you refer to?

  4. Will an A380 ever wear Iran Air colors? And if so, how long will it be before Iran Air realizes that’s a terrible idea? Maybe they won’t be delivered for 10 years. Maybe the numbers will change. But one thing is clear. There is huge opportunity for long-term growth in this market, as long as Iran doesn’t screw itself and violate the nuclear deal.

    There maybe huge growth potential, but the US will do what ever it can to stop it. There are two interrelated reasons – 1. war on terror & 2. protection of Israel. This will become even more evident if a republican gets in the WH.

  5. I read your trip report on your experience on Iran Air’s 707, perhaps the last one flying. In looking at your photo of the 707 livery, do you think this plane could have been an AA 707 at one time? I believe I flew the last passenger flight on an AA 07 from IAH to DFW in the early 1980’s. There was only one other passenger on board. I asked the FA how AA could afford to operate a 707 with only 2 pax…she said this was almost a ferrying flight as this was the last official flight of a 707 for AA. The aircraft was being retired the next day. I loved the 707!

    1. Drybean – Just to be clear, that’s not my trip report. It’s just one I found. I never had the chnace to fly a 707.

      1. blockquote, div.yahoo_quoted { margin-left: 0 !important; border-left:1px #715FFA solid !important; padding-left:1ex !important; background-color:white !important; } You missed a Great experience!

        Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

    1. Looks like its 12 minimum ! Joke aside, 12 is only 4/5 point to point destination. If they still use 747 today and fill them, A380 to replace if you can’t order Boeing yet is not necesarily a bad idea !

  6. A large order like that is all for show, to impress future investors. Sure some narrowbodies and a few widebodies will be replacements for the old fleet, but don’t expect them to be another TK/EK overnight or ever. Long gone are the days of PanAm flying to THR as a stop on their round the world flights so Americans are now more into Dubai as the place to be or travel via.

  7. Is it really that many aircrafts ?
    Compare with how many aircraft airlines in a country like Spain operate daily, with a less populated country and that number is still rather low.
    Add in he fact that Iran is a major O&G market, and might be, in the years to come, the only “safe” tourist destination in the area (with Egypt imploding, Turkey on the brink, …), and it kind of makes sense. Plus the fact that, if placed at the end of the queue, some of these airplanes will not even be delivered in 10-15 years …

  8. I predict that (1) all these airplanes will NOT go just to Iran Air, but be parceled out to other Iranian carriers and (2) they will never take delivery of any A380s.  Those orders will be quietly switched to a smaller aircraft they can actually use.

  9. Not to be nit-picky, but Chicago and Los Angeles both have populations above 8 million when you count their metropolitan areas :-)

  10. Back in 2000 I flew round trip on an IranAir 747 from LHR to Tehran. Both segments were oversold. To say that A380s will never be used or are not needed is provincialism mixed with ignorance.

    1. That is amusing Allan…you are basing the purchase of a couple billion dollars worth of airplanes on one trip you flew 16 years ago (on a considerably smaller airplane)? A lot has changed since then and if you look around at who else has ordered the A380, anybody with 10 or 12 is a world renown airline like Lufthansa or British. ANA just put their toe in the water for 3 and I think that may be too many for them. The idea that Iran Air could be in that league in the next 20 years is just silly. Nothing against Iran or Iran Air, just being realistic about what is possible and what isn’t.

  11. From the mid 60s, when IranAir commenced jet operations, its growth over the next ten years was phenomenal and this was achieved despite a relatively small quota of trained Iranian aviation professionals. Today, Iran can call on a large number of accomplished Iranian aviation professionals, both at home and abroad. The only question is whether they have the will to compete with the the gulf carriers on similar terms of service and efficiency. The bar is quite high.

  12. Iran Air is heavily overstaffed. It would barely have a problem finding the manpower necessary for operating and maintenance of these aircrafts. Technical expertise come with operational of newer aircrafts not before that, as it is (and was) the case for other airlines in Middle East and elsewhere. The market is already there if they can start non stop long haul flights to Canada and Australia as well as the Far East. There are nearly 5 million Iranians living abroad, for some of them Iran Air is still the airline to fly with. Your article is very interesting, but it is extremely subjective and poorly researched.

  13. Its about time the USA get off its high horse and allow European airbus to sell civilians planes to Iran. Airbus could be making so much more profit by tapping into Irans aviation industry which needs serious modernisation. Not sure why europe is so fixated on listening to what Washington dictates to them

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