Dec. 6, 2012 at 5:23 AM ET
Travelers heading to Iraq may soon have more airline options for their journey.
In a Final Rule published in the Federal Register on Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that starting in January, U.S. carriers will be allowed to provide service to and from Erbil and Sulaymaniyah International Airports in northern Iraq.
The decision comes 16 years after U.S. airlines were banned from operating in the region because of concerns they might become targets.
When the first Gulf War ended in 1991, the U.S. and its allies established no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, but then-President Saddam Hussein told his air defense forces to ignore both zones and to attack “any air target of the aggressors,” according to the FAA. The agency worried that the threat could apply to passenger flights, so the ban was put in place in 1996.
Much has changed since then.
Civilian planes have been allowed to fly above 20,000 feet over Iraq since 2003 and the FAA notes that non-U.S. airlines have operated at the Erbil and Sulaymaniyah International Airports for years without incident.
U.S. flights may now be conducted safely to these two airports “under certain conditions,” including the requirement that any U.S. carrier that wants to fly there must receive approval from the Transportation Security Administration. Commercial airlines also may not land at any other Iraqi airports, except in an emergency.
So far, no U.S. airlines have signed up. Airlines for America – which represents major U.S. airlines – is not aware of any U.S. passenger carriers that have expressed interest in starting service there, said Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for the group.
But Erbil International Airport welcomed the FAA’s decision, saying it would also benefit private jets and cargo services.
"The lifting of the ban after 16 years is a boost to the region,” said Talar Faiq, the airport’s director, in a statement.
“(We) look forward to welcoming U.S. registered planes in the coming months and years. The move enables us to enhance the connectivity profile of the airport and is a vote of confidence for all of us.”
Several major non-U.S. carriers already provide service to and from Erbil International Airport, including Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines and Emirates. Sulaymaniyah International sees carriers such as Turkish Airlines and Royal Jordanian.
Fliers include people seeking to do business in the region, travelers whose families live there and some tourists. The Kurdistan Regional Government, which oversees Erbil, boasts that the area is “is an ideal destination for those seeking unspoiled mountain scenery and ancient archeological sites off the beaten track.”