Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Rock in the Air

My work requires that I travel frequently between Basra, Sulimaniyah and Baghdad. This means that I get to fly on Iraqi Air - or as I lovingly call it, A Rock in the Air - fairly often. At the end of January I flew down to Basra for a long weekend. Sadly, it was more like a long continuation of the week, rather than any kind of end. To add insult to injury, I had to fly down on my one day off, I had to leave our house at 5am and I had to drag a colleague along with me. He's relatively new to Iraq and doesn't speak Arabic, which meant that I was in charge of playing hostess as we navigated through the airport's many security checks.

We were, of course, flying on Iraqi Air which is right up there with Scariana (Ariana - Afghan Airlines) in terms of reliability and safety. I'm pretty sure that if I meet an untimely death in my line of work it will be on a sketchy ass plane. For some reason they never announced our flight on the loudspeaker, so the incredibly grumpy Iraqi man who checked us in ran up to us about 20 min after our flight was supposed to leave yelling at us to hurry up. Apparently we'd missed some invisible signal, because the three other travelers (yes, all three of them) were already in the waiting area.

Once we got settled on our itsy bitsy little plane things seemed to be going alright, if a little bumpy. Then I noticed that I could actually feel the pilot trying to accelerate the plane - in the air. Now, I've flown a lot, and I'm pretty good at noticing changes in altitude, but I have never in my life (until this trip) actually felt the pilot struggle to pick up speed while airborne. Then we kept gaining and losing altitude - to the point that my coworker and I kept glancing over at each other with raised eyebrows. I even left my seatbelt on, which I never do.

After about an hour of that we landed at lovely Basra International Airport. We got off our plane and hopped into the little bus that drives up to the terminal - where the driver dropped us off at the wrong door. One of the other passengers just walked up to a random door and opened it, which let us directly into the baggage claim area. Technically, we're supposed to go through passport control and the health inspection (they're obsessed with swine flu) before we can get to the baggage area. And we stood there for a good 10 minutes before one of the airport security guys came jogging over to tell us we had to leave the terminal and go back to the tarmac, walk around the building and enter through the correct door. By then, one of the other travelers had wandered off so they had to track him down and bring him back. Of course, once we'd exited the building, walked around it and arrived at the correct door - it was locked. Eventually someone came along and unlocked the door, at which point we had to wait for the immigration and the health inspection empoyees to arrive. Clearly, they weren't anticipating our flight - and don't even get me started on the security issues with this little charade.

Once we finished filling out paperwork and being scanned by their person size thermometer machine we met our driver and headed to the office, where I proceeded to do about a weeks worth of work in 2.5 days.

Our return flight was equally exciting. The flight was scheduled for 4pm which is never a good sign with Iraqi Air. Now I'm going to segway and tell you about how Iraqi Air schedules their flights - basically, they don't. Each week they make rough estimates of when they will fly, and then change it several times. So, if you have a meeting on Friday you should try to catch a flight at three days earlier and anticipate that it will be canceled at least once. The later in the day the flight is scheduled to depart the more likely it is to be canceled.

So, we're just about to leave for the airport when we find out our flight's been delayed by an hour. When we get to the airport it's been delayed another hour. Now it's 6pm and dark outside. Our flight finally left at 7:30 pm - but at least the plane was slightly less scary.

Upon arrival in Baghdad we again hopped on a little bus thingee and rode to the terminal. And again, the door was locked. We had to bang on the door for about 5 minutes before someone came over and unlocked it, while asking us where we had come from. Hello - air traffic control, anyone?!? Then we had to deal with immigration again. I'd like to point out that we never left Iraq, but even internal flights are required to clear immigration.

The best part of the entire trip was that I finally got to travel through Baghdad at night. I've been living here for seven months and I've never been out in the evening. It's a completely different city - lit up with colorful lights and full of families out on the streets.

*author's note: I've flown on Iraqi Air since this last post, and am happy to report it was far less eventful.

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