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 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 Airfleets.net 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.
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.