* String of aviation accidents in recent years
* U.S. embargo, FX shortage makes it hard to obtain parts
* But air transport is rare bright spot in struggling economy
* Authorities plan to build four new airports
* Reforms being made to supervision of industry
By Ulf Laessing
KHARTOUM, Oct 31 (Reuters) - After a Sudanese plane crashed at Khartoum’s international airport last year, authorities didn’t slow plans to build new airports and add more routes. They used the incident to shoot a video showing how safe flying in Sudan is, thanks to its skillful pilots.
“Tower, the wheels are jammed. What shall I do?” the pilot says in the film, replaying for the cameras how he circled for an hour above Khartoum to empty his fuel talks while workers flooded the runway with foam.
As news that the plane was in trouble spread around the city on Oct. 2 last year, hundreds of people rushed to the airport to watch anxiously as the ageing Fokker landed with its wheels up.
It turned on its side but all 45 passengers survived, the advertising video being produced by the civil aviation authority proudly states. A preliminary version of the film was seen by Reuters before its public release.
Sudan has been hit by a string of aviation accidents in the past several years; authorities have registered about 10 safety incidents in the last two years, airline experts told a workshop organised by the aviation authority last month.
In early October a Sudanese military plane crashed near Khartoum, killing 15 people. In August, 32 people including a government minister died when a civilian plane crashed in the south of the country. A Sudan Airways cargo plane crashed while taking off in the United Arab Emirates in 2009, and a cargo plane crashed shortly after take-off from Khartoum in 2008.
Sudan’s airlines have struggled to obtain modern planes and spare parts because of a U.S. trade embargo, initially imposed in 1997 over the country’s past hosting of militant Islamists, and a shortage of foreign exchange. Airbus, Boeing and most maintenance firms have refused to deal with the country.
But the aviation sector has nevertheless been growing strongly, a rare bright spot in an economy which has been ravaged by wars, ethnic conflicts and last year’s separation from the country of South Sudan, which took much of Sudan’s oil reserves when it became independent.
Passenger numbers have risen to 2.8 million annually from 1.8 million 2-1/2 years ago, said Mohammed Abdelaziz, head of the civil aviation authority.
“We expect more growth in coming years,” he said, predicting that by 2023 Sudan would have 7 million passengers annually. An immediate fillip will come from a September deal with South Sudan to resume oil shipments through Sudanese territory and cross-border trade, a lifeline for both countries.
To serve its rising traffic, Sudan plans to build a new airport for Khartoum after its main trade partner China agreed to fund and execute a first construction phase costing $700 million, Abdelaziz said.
“Work will start at the beginning of next year,” he said, adding that the remaining $600 million required would be raised through build-and-operate contracts, under which companies building the airport would be able to earn their fees from operating its facilities.
The new airport, designed for an annual capacity of 7 million passengers, is to be ready in three years.
The project, on the drawing board for many years, is overdue, and not just for capacity reasons. The current airport, built by British colonial rulers in the 1950s, has a short runway and lies in the heart of the capital, which is a risk for local residents given the accidents.
“Foreign airlines have habitually complained the runway in the old airport is too short, a disadvantage that results in greater wear on tyres and brakes,” said Magdi El Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, a consultancy.
Much of Sudan’s passenger growth comes from domestic carriers which lease used Airbus or Russian planes from other airlines to serve the vast country, where no passenger railway exists and trips by road can take days.
In addition to Khartoum, Sudan is building three airports including one at Wadi Halfa at the Egyptian border. The oil deal with South Sudan has reopened air traffic between the two nations, a big source of revenue for local airlines since South Sudan does not have its own carrier and has few paved roads.
“They make good money with cargo as it is much easier to transport goods to the South by air than on roads, especially in the rainy season,” said Sheikh El-Din Abdallah, secretary general of the National Chamber of Air Transport, an industry body.
Three Sudanese carriers offer daily flights to the Southern capital Juba, which will also get a new airport courtesy of China.
Despite the rising traffic, local airlines struggle financially because they pay a premium for spare parts from the few firms dealing with Sudan.
“You get spare parts from firms in South Africa which charge you two times the market price or more,” Abdallah said, adding that high taxes in Sudan were also a burden.
Passengers in Sudan have much to endure, not just crashes. To avoid operating losses, airlines often cancel flights on “technical grounds” if flights are not fully booked.
State-owned carrier Sudan Airways, known for its delays, has lost out to new carriers offering better service. Rival Marsland Aviation, which is privately owned, claims a 65 percent market share on domestic routes, according to its website.
Khartoum’s airport has been in decay for years, with many passenger information systems and stairways out of service because of the country’s shortage of dollars to buy spare parts.
The packed Sudan Airways workshop at Khartoum airport looks like a museum; broken-down planes queue outside, some of them stranded there for a year.
There are positive signs, however. Facing public outrage, officials have overhauled the civil aviation body by splitting off supervision in line with global standards. Passenger and baggage security checks have visibly improved in the past several months. Signs banning people not travelling from the Khartoum airport’s passenger lounges have been put up in the past few weeks.
“Monitoring will now improve. They take civil aviation affairs more seriously,” said Mohammed Khonji, Middle East head of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
And Sudan Airways has noble traditions. One of Africa’s oldest carriers, it used to fly to London and Frankfurt until the European Union banned it over its safety record. Sudanese pilots were once in high demand because of their experience, helping other Arab carriers to get started, before Sudan went into isolation in the 1990s as the U.S. embargo was imposed.
But the drive to strengthen the aviation sector comes as Sudan’s links to the global airline network look increasingly shaky. Only about 14 foreign carriers fly to Khartoum, mostly from neighbouring Arab or African countries; Germany’s Lufthansa and Dutch carrier KLM are the only Western airlines.
Some foreign carriers have halted or reduced flights because the government requires them to sell tickets in local currency, which they cannot easily convert into dollars because of exchange controls.
Most airlines have sharply raised ticket prices since Sudan devalued its pound this summer. New trouble looms as authorities plan to charge foreign firms in dollars for jet fuel.
“Foreign airlines don’t really make much money here these days but could at least spend their pounds from ticket sales to fund the return trip,” said a Western diplomat. “If this new policy gets enforced, then most will stop flying here.”