Leaving Damascus: Syrian Air Travel Sinks Under Sanctions

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A Syrian rebel aims his weapon during clashes with government forces in the streets near Aleppo international airport in northern Syria on 4 March 2013. (Photo: AFP -Stephen J. Boitano)

By: Mawada Bahah

Published Wednesday, July 31, 2013

For Syrians, traveling to any given destination in the world is more complicated than ever. Syrians have very limited choices, and the “sky is the limit” for the fares they have to pay, even if traveling from Syria on the national carrier.

Damascus – The crisis in Syria has gone on for too long, and any hopes the Syrians may have had in seeing it end have all but evaporated. Some now dream of leaving for good, toward any destination that would receive them, whether as refugees or, at the very best, self-supporting expatriates.

For those choosing the second option, Damascus residents have only two options: risk the trip to Damascus International Airport to board one of its limited flights; or chose the safer option of crossing the Lebanese border and going to the Beirut airport.

A taxi driver working the Beirut route told Al-Akhbar that the majority of daily trips from Damascus now head directly to the Beirut airport, seeing as the number of flights operating out of Damascus has declined dramatically. He did not deny that fares have increased significantly.

Previously, the trip from the passenger’s home to Charles Helou station in Beirut would cost no more than 600 Syrian pounds (SYP) per passenger ($6 at current rates) or 3,500 for the whole car ($35). After the crisis, taxis now charge SYP 3,500 per passenger.

“At best, one can pay SYP 2,500 and take a bus to the Beirut airport. If one wants some luxury with an entire taxi, one must pay SYP 12,000 ($120),” the taxi driver added.

Taxi drivers justify this with excuses that many Syrians now know by heart: inflation, the deteriorating value of the Syrian pound, fuel shortages, or even checkpoints that make trips lengthier and more complex.

We spoke to a travel agent in downtown Damascus, who explained that inflation has affected everything in the air travel supply chain, including fares to the Damascus airport, which are somewhere around SYP 4,500 ($45) at present.

When we asked him about the conditions of the Airport Road, the travel agent answered, “It depends on one’s luck,” stressing that taking the road by night is dangerous. He then concluded that for some, travel through Damascus is preferable and less costly than the trip to Beirut, especially after government sources recently spoke of raising exit fees from SYP 550 to 1,000 ($10).

SyrianAir Dominates the Skies

At the Damascus airport, Syria’s national carrier, SyrianAir, has come to dominate the scene. Only SyrianAir flights operate out of the Damascus airport, which has been boycotted by Arab and international carriers for both political and security reasons.

According to a source at the airline, SyrianAir departing flights have declined from 42 to 14. Destinations now include Moscow, Arab Gulf countries, Beirut, Yerevan, Amman, Tehran, Egypt, and Algeria. The airline does not currently have accurate figures on the number of flights or passengers, chiefly as a result of new US sanctions.

On 16 May 2013, the US Department of the Treasury added SyrianAir to its list of sanctioned companies and individuals. SyrianAir has also been denied access to SITA computer reservation systems and e-ticketing. However, according to the airline source, SyrianAir will soon overcome this problem, and launch its own reservations system.

The national flag carrier admits that its fares have increased by up to 30 percent, but travel agents say that prices continue to rise every day. According to these agents, even nearby destinations in Jordan and Egypt could cost travelers more than SYP 50,000 ($475), compared to no more than SYP 15,000 ($140) before the crisis.

Regardless of rising airfares, it remains the safest option, even for those who want to travel to Jordan. For many, traveling there by road has become too expensive and inconvenient.

A bus ticket to Jordan costs around SYP 14,000 ($140). Some private taxis also take passengers to Jordan, and when they are available – as one agent told us –“their fare is too high, upward of SYP 20,000 ($190).” The agent also said that the current route to Jordan, which now passes through Suweida, makes the trip longer.

Sanctions Hurt Ordinary Citizens

Regardless of tough economic conditions in Syria and the plunging value of the national currency, the problems specific to air travel began to emerge following the Arab and international boycotts on Syria in the form of economic sanctions. Though it is claimed that these sanctions are meant to pressure the regime, they have ended up hurting ordinary citizens.

According to an economics professor at the University of Damascus, who declined to be named, all economic issues, irrespective of their complexity, ultimately impact individuals’ living standards. Therefore, he argued, economic sanctions inevitably affect ordinary citizens because of the added pressures on resources, prices, and consequently, real incomes.

Meanwhile, because of the sanctions, individuals and governments are forced to use inefficient methods to obtain goods and services at high costs.

This view is shared by economic expert Riad Taqi al-Din, who said that one prominent problem in this regard is reconciling international economic sanctions with human rights. Taqi al-Din then added that sanctions have been imposed on Syria since the 1980s, before they were dramatically stepped up with the participation of the Arab League.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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