Published in August 2016 issue
After two decades of silence, Iran is once again making aviation headlines.
In February 2016, Iran finally made the news in both specialized and general media around the world. Following the lifting of sanctions, flag carrier Iran Air (IR) announced a major order from Airbus—a total of 118 aircraft to be delivered through 2023. According to the airline’s CEO, Farhad Parvaresh, the deal includes 21 A320ceos, 24 A320neos, 27 A330ceos, 18 A330neos, 16 A350-1000s, and 12 A380s. A separate deal with manufacturer ATR will bring 20 brand-new 72-600 turboprops by 2018.
By Matteo Legnani
The first A320s and A330s will start arriving within year’s end, renovating the fleet of four Airbus A300-600Rs, two A310-300s, one Boeing 747-200, six A320s and 16 Fokker 100s. This is one of the oldest fleets in the world, the planes averaging 26.5 years.
With this order, the face of Iran Air is about to change significantly. Therefore, having the chance to visit the ancient Persepolis and the jewel-cities of Isfahan, Mashad and Shiraz, I took the opportunity to travel with the carrier, which sports the symbol of the Homa—a mythical bird of Iranian legend and fable, which is said to spend its life flying high above the earth and never alight on the ground. I planned my journey so that I could fly two different types of aircraft.
Upon buying the tickets from my travel agent, I was told that, by paying only €200 (US$230) more, I could enjoy a ride in IR’s Business Class on one of the legs. Looking at the timetable, I chose to upgrade the Milan-Malpensa (MXP)- Tehran (IKA) flight, which was scheduled for a morning departure and included a full-lunch service, rather than the flight back to Italy, which would leave IKA mid-afternoon.
Neither web check-in nor seat selection are available for any Iran Air flight. So, to be sure of getting a window seat, I showed up at the airline’s counter at MXP 2½ hours before departure. Out of the three desks dedicated to the flight, one was reserved for Business Class passengers. When I requested a window seat, the agent told me that, as I was the sole Business Class passenger onboard, I could choose any seat I wished. She handed me a boarding pass showing that I had been allocated seat 1A and then informed me that the flight would be on time.
IR grants its Premium passengers at MXP access to the Piranesi Club Sea Lounge, on the upper floor of Concourse B. Unfortunately, no fast-track security screening was allowed, so it took me about 10 minutes to clear the line, given the morning peak time, with quite a number of long-haul wide-bodies leaving for North America and the Middle East. After all that, I went directly to the lounge.
My flight was operated by an Airbus A300B4-600R (EP-IBC/MSN 632), originally delivered to Olympic Airways in 1992. Boarding from gate B02 was called just 15 minutes before departing time for the obvious reason that, besides myself as the single Business Class traveler, there were just two dozen other passengers boarding the flight. The Economy cabin looked like a desert stretch of blue and green seats, dotted here and there with human heads. Not exactly a profitable ride.
In the Business Class cabin, arranged in a 2+2+2 layout for a total of 22 seats, the head-to-toe covered Flight Attendant (FA) explained that I could choose any seat I wanted. However, I was not alone in the cabin; a company Captain and First Officer were snoozing in the first two rows, on the right side of the cabin, while ‘my’ seat (1A) was actually occupied by someone who looked like a security agent of the airline (later, on arrival in Iran, he was met under the plane by a patrol car).
Finally, I chose to settle in 3A. The FA welcomed me with a drink selection: water, juice or cold tea—no spirits onboard. While sipping a juice—which could have been mango—I explored the cabin, which looked in poor shape. No sleeper seats, no amenity kit or hot towels, no headphones, neither personal video screens nor power sockets. Everything, from the upholstery to the carpets, the armrests and overhead compartments were worn out, and even the seat pitch was austere.
Pushback began five minutes behind schedule. The safety demonstration was carried out by the FAs, both in Farsi and in English, after an announcement made by the the Captain, who, “in the name of God the compassionate and the merciful,” anticipated a 4 hour 30 minute flight at a cruising altitude of 35,000ft (10,700m). This was the first time in my flying life that I had heard an airline Pilot evoking the name of God before departure. During our engine start-up, an El Al Boeing 737-800 arrived at the ramp—escorted, as usual, by a police car. The aircraft stopped in front of us, waiting for the gates area to be vacated.
Maybe it was just my impression, but it seemed to me that the Pilot took all his time to spool up the two GE-CF6 engines before moving toward 35R, from where we took off 15 minutes behind schedule. The route took us east, along the southern line of the Alps, and then southeast over Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, and, finally, Iran.
The much-anticipated lunch service started exactly one hour after takeoff. There was no menu or aperitif. The FA simply showed up, putting on my table an elegant linen-covered tray with a plate of appetizers: shrimp cocktail, potato salad, and a wine leaf filled with rice and assorted vegetables. Everything, from the white bone china, to the glass and the forks, sported the Homa of Iran Air. The beautiful culinary composition was completed by a fresh red rose. In addition to being beautiful to look at, the food was delicious and plentiful, although I really missed a glass of chilled white wine to accompany the shrimp cocktail.
A few minutes later, as the entrees were served, the FAs followed to attend the four of us in Business Class in a somewhat hierarchical order: the off duty Captain was always the first to be served, followed by the First Officer, the presumed security agent, and me. The only fare-paying passenger was the last to be attended to! That’s something that Iran Air will have to change, together with its airplanes, if it wants to attract more high-yield travelers. Also, I noticed that the cockpit cabin remained open during lunch and the FAs spent a lot of time serving the Pilots—something that goes against ICAO’s post 9/11safety procedures.
As for the appetizers, there was no menu for the entrees. Instead, the FAs came by with a cart showing all the options: chicken or lamb with rice, fish, or a vegetarian plate that was well presented and colorful. Being allergic to garlic, I asked the FA if any of the choices contained it, but she politely answered that she didn’t know, as she hadn’t tasted the food before serving it.
I finally opted for the fish, which were juicy yet not tasty pan-fried (and fortunately garlic-free) salmon fillets, accompanied by potatoes, broccoli, and carrots. The lunch service ended with a fruit basket containing oranges, apples, bananas, and strawberries.
With about three hours still to go and no IFE, I tried to catch some sleep—an easy task, thanks to the silence of the cabin, the hum of the engines, and a full stomach.
Approximately 90 minutes before landing, the FA awakened me with a snack. On a tray similar to the lunch one, I was treated to two pastries and a basket of dried grapes and pistachio nuts, along with hot tea. It was just delicious.
Soon after this banquet, we began our descent into Tehran, where the weather was reported cloudy with a temperature of 86°F (30°C).
The Iranian capital boasts two airports: Mehrabad (THR) which has been completely surrounded by the city and is now limited to domestic flights, and Khomeini International (IKA), built 19 miles (30km) south of the city and opened at the end of 2007 to host international traffic.
Our final descent through multiple layers of clouds was very bumpy almost until touchdown, so the ‘kiss’ given by the Pilot to runway 29R was a real surprise. Reverse thrust was employed at idle as we landed on the 13,772ft (4,198m) strip of asphalt. The Airbus comfortably slowed down and left the runway at the last exit before backtracking along the single taxiway.
At 18:20 local time, the scene at IKA was dominated by the two major local carriers Iran Air and Mahan Air (W5), the only exceptions being an Emirates (EK) Boeing 777-300, an Etihad (EY) Airbus A320 and an Iraqi Airways (IA) Boeing 767-300. The terminal building is fitted with seven boarding bridges, but most aircraft stop at remote stands, and passengers are bussed to the arrival hall; and so were we, escorted all the way to passport control by an armed guard.
Immigration was fast and easy: no eye-scan, no uncomfortable questions from the agent about my stay in Iran. The policeman stamped my passport next to the tourist visa I had got at the consulate in Milan. And that was it. Go figure!
IR 739: TEHRAN-ROME
Exactly eight days later, I was back at IKA for my return flight to Italy. My hopes for an on-time departure (because I’d have to connect in Rome to Milan) were immediately frustrated by the departures billboard indicating that IR739 to Fiumicino-Leonardo da Vinci International Airport (FCO) was running one hour late, with the new departure time set at 17:15. That made an—expensive—call to Alitalia in Italy necessary to switch the flight to Milan Linate (LIN) before check-in.
IKA’s departures hall, situated on the upper floor of the terminal, has a high vaulted ceiling and two enormous half-moon- shaped windows (one landside and the other airside) letting in plenty of natural light.
At mid-afternoon, the check-in area, divided in five ‘islands’ for a total of about 100 counters, was anything but crowded. The four desks dedicated to my Rome flight were deserted and the check-in took just a couple of minutes. The agent assigned me seat 23K and confirmed the delay. The reason, he explained, was “the late arrival of the preceding flight”, but the real cause—as I found out later, when I arrived at gate 23—was an equipment change. Instead of the scheduled Airbus A310-300, there was another A300 (EPIBD/ MSN 696) waiting for me.
So there went my chance to fly—for the last time—the smallest wide-body ever built by Airbus. However, there was a consolation prize. One of the last Boeing 747SPs in service in the world arrived from Kuala Lumpur, operating flight IR818 (EP-IAC/MSN 21093/LN 307). Dubbed Persian Gulf, the SP parked just next to my gate, giving me the opportunity to take some beautiful photos, although through a glass window.
Boarding commenced at 17:00. Once again, the operation was speedy because of the low passenger load to Rome. Embarking as the last passenger, I realized that two-thirds of the seats in the forward Economy cabin were free, with the back of the plane completely empty. No more than 50 people were onboard this 239-seat jetliner. My seat, 23K, was located behind the wing, giving me a good unobstructed view of the ground. So, notwithstanding the ample choice of seats around me, I decided to settle down there.
Our aircraft (EP-IBD) appeared to be in a better shape than its fellow former Olympic Airways EP-IBC: upholstery and carpets were in perfect condition as were the old Sigma- Aero seats, fitted with footrests and quite comfortable, although not very soft.
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The smell of the cabin was also less moldy. Headphones were distributed, anticipating some kind of Inflight Entertainment, and the Captain, once again “in the name of God”, announced a 4-hour 50-minute flight at 40,000ft (12,000m), our route taking us over Turkey, Greece, and Albania before entering Italian air space.
Twenty-five minutes after boarding, the A300 took off westbound, allowing passengers seated to the right to get an amazing view of the snow-capped 20,000ft (6,100m) mountain range at the north of Tehran, showing all its majesty.
An hour later, a hot meal was served with a choice between chicken with rice or beef with vegetables. I choose the chicken, which came accompanied by mashed eggplant and a yogurt as dessert. Bread was a plastic-preserved chewy bun. At first there was no trace of chicken in the plate but, digging with the fork, I found four dry and tasteless pieces under the rice. For a beverage, I asked for a glass of water, but the cart only had juices and soft drinks. The FA served me the water 10 minutes later. Just unacceptable.
Personally, this was the worst airplane meal I had ever experienced, compounded by the totally impersonal and shabby service provided by the Flight Attendants.
When the trays were retired, the old-fashioned video screen on the forward wall of the cabin suddenly came to life, the FA announcing the beginning of an 80-minute movie named Adam Son and His Daughter, starring an actor with a peculiar resemblance to Albert Einstein. Just two minutes into the movie, I realized that it was boring enough to make reading a book, looking out of the window, or doing anything else preferable.
While flying over Greece, the FAs handed me a cold snack, again without a trace of smile or courtesy. Enveloped in a plastic box, I found a stone-hard plain pastry, a kiwi, a juice, and a ‘grape extract crispy bread’.
Descent began a little after overflying Bari, on the south-eastern coast of Italy, and, 30 minutes later, we terminated our flight on FCO’s 12,795ft (3,900 m) 16R runway.
The A300 docked at the non-Schengen Satellite G but, instead of entering the terminal, we were bussed to Arrivals escorted by a police car. We passed through stringent safety controls before leaving the airport. Entering Iran seems to be easier than coming back home—at least if you travel by plane.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
In about a year, many things will change for Iran Air: the airline will take delivery of last-generation aircraft, fitted with modern passenger cabins, with—perhaps—personal video screens and maybe even sleeper seats. But the under-motivated cabin crews, poor food quality in Economy, and censored inflight entertainment, are the real challenges that the Homa will have to face if it wants to host more than a few dozen paying passengers per flight. The excellent meal in Business Class, though, hints the potential this airline still has to exploit.