When Islamist Taliban seized power from the now-defunct Western-backed Afghan government last year, the only international airport in Kabul, i.e., Kabul International Airport, also came under the control of the hardline Islamists. This air facility serves as one of Afghanistan’s primary international airports, linking the landlocked nation with the world.
On May 2022, the Taliban government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with a state-owned aviation company in the United Arab Emirates to hand over the control and management of Afghani airports, including airports in Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat. The purpose of the deal was to boost confidence for all international airlines to return to Afghanistan in peace and encourage international investment in the country.
Following the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August, almost all international airlines halted their operations in Kabul. As Taliban fighters swept into the Afghan capital, the international airport in Kabul was ransacked. Thousands of people scrambled to the airport as it was the only way out of the war-torn country. As a result, chaotic scenes gripped Kabul Airport, impeding the evacuation procedure.
The war has ended, and the airport is back to normal operations. But, not many airlines are willing to fly into Kabul until Taliban officials guarantee their security. The handover of the international airport to the UAE Company can be a major step towards bringing the business community back to Afghanistan in terms of seeing the continuity of the same officials who handled the airport before the Taliban takeover. Before the collapse of Kabul in 2021, the UAE state-linked GAAC was the one that had taken responsibility for the ground handling service at Afghan airports.
On September 8, the Taliban administration announced that UAE-based GAAC had signed a third and final contract to manage ground services and security in Afghanistan’s airports covering Kabul Airport, Ahmad Shah Baba International Airport, and Khwaja Abdulla Ansari International Airport. The contract, valid for ten years, will allow the Abu-Dhabi-based GAAC Holding to operationalize Afghanistan’s airspace and restore navigation services in three airports. The deal comes at a time Afghanistan’s aviation industry has been crippled without resumption of foreign flights for more than a year since the Taliban takeover. The new operator is expected to lift commercial airline operations in Afghanistan by bringing back significant international carriers to the country. The airport in Kabul might revive with the arrival of GAAC and see a pickup in international services.
Located in the heart of the capital city of Afghanistan, Kabul International Airport is the main door for the nation to operate business, trade, and commerce with other countries. The airport is Afghanistan’s vital air link and only gateway to the world. The safe operation of Kabul airport is of critical importance for other nations to get their citizens out of the country in case of emergency, for international organizations to deliver humanitarian aid to the nation plagued by widespread hunger, war, and economic crisis, and for diplomatic missions to continue their activities in Afghanistan. For the nation battling a spiraling economic crisis and extreme poverty, the airport is the best medium to enable the flow of foreign investment, goods, and services into the country. The international airport in Kabul can ease the Taliban’s isolation from the outside world as they struggle to gain recognition from foreign nations and foster good relations with them.
Background of Kabul International Airport
Kabul International Airport, formerly known as Hamid Karzai International Airport, is the primary air facility serving the national capital and nearby provinces. The airport is situated five kilometers away from the center of Kabul, surrounded by the mountains of the Hindu Kush, at an elevation of 1791m above sea level. The airport was built in 1960 by Soviet engineers with a single terminal as a gift, and it served foreign visitors coming into Afghanistan.
Over the past 60 years of its operations, the control of Kabul Airport has been switched multiple times. During the Soviet-Afghan War, the airport was a military base for the Soviet Army and the military forces of the former Afghani president, Mohammad Najibullah. From 1996 to 2001, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan took over the airport in Kabul. The airport saw a facelift and gradual development when the International Security Assistant Force (ISAF) took over control of it after the US invasion of Afghanistan.
At present, the Taliban government has handed over the task of running Kabul Airport to GAAC Holding to attract more international flight operations. With the signing of the contract, UAE’s aviation company will manage Kabul’s ground handling, security, and airspace.
Facilities at Kabul Airport
The only airport in Kabul, Kabul International Airport, has two terminals: the original Soviet-constructed terminal that opened in 1960 and the new $35 million terminal that was inaugurated in November 2008. The old terminal has been refurbished and hosts domestic flights, whereas the new facility has hosted international operations since its official opening to foreign flights in June 2009. The modern terminal offers several facilities to traveling passengers, such as free Wi-Fi, currency exchange and transfer facilities, a car park, food and beverages, and a taxi service at the airport exit.
Kabul Airport has a single paved runway measuring 3,511 m (11,519ft) long, which is enough to accommodate military aircraft. The airport in Kabul is one of the largest military bases and houses command facilities for the Afghan Air Forces. The air facility has several hangars along the runway dedicated solely to military airplanes. The airfield as a whole can house over 100 aircraft on the ground.
For military operations, Kabul Airport consists of seven helicopter pads. The airport also has fire-fighting equipment that contains up to 12,000 liters of water and can reach 90 minutes high to manage fire outbreaks.
Airlines operating at Kabul Airport
For years, Kabul International Airport has been serving as the primary hub for Ariana Afghan Airlines, the flag carrier of Afghanistan, and Kam Air, the largest private Afghan airline. Before Taliban control, six international airlines ferried passengers to/from Kabul Airport, including Air India, Emirates, Flydubai, Pakistan International Airlines, Turkish International Airlines, and Air Arabia. The airport used to handle over 1200 flights every month. Emirates and Air Arabia operated daily flights to Kabul Airport, connecting Afghanistan to the United Arab Emirates.
Following the political disruption, only a handful of flights are operating out of Kabul Airport. Currently, only carriers based in Afghanistan, i.e., Ariana and Kam Air, operate international services from the airport.
From Kabul Airport, Ariana Afghan Airlines serve destinations like Doha, Dubai, Herat, Islamabad, Kandahar, Mashhad, Riyadh, Mazar-i-Sharif, etc., whereas the privately-owned am Air flies internationally to Abu Dhabi, Bamyan, Dubai, Jeddah, Istanbul, etc.
Turkish Airlines, the flag carrier of Turkey, is likely to return to Kabul soon. The carrier inaugurated the Istanbul-Kabul route on July 10, 2011, and soon became one of Afghanistan’s largest foreign carriers. In the pre-pandemic year, i.e., in 2019, it offered 191,000 round-trip seats to the Afghan capital and carried 155,000 round-trip passengers.
Since Taliban forces completely took over the airport in August 2021, there has been a halting of flight operations between India and Afghanistan. Several airlines like Air India, Kam Air, SpiceJet, and Ariana Afghan Air used to operate flights from Kabul to India. The air link between these two countries is crucial for businesspeople, students, and medical patients. Around 8-9% of medical tourists that come to India are Afghans. Given the improving situation in Kabul, flights to India may resume soon.
Similarly, the mega Gulf carrier Emirates, flydubai, and Air Arabia may also restart operations at Kabul Airport in the coming months, especially now that their state-owned GAAC Holding has won the contract to manage the airport.
Renaming the airport from Hamid Karzai to Kabul International
From 2014 to 2021, the airport in Kabul was known as Hamid Karzai International Airport, named after former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in honor of his services and contributions to the country’s rebuilding. As the Taliban seized the government in August 2021, they renamed the airport Kabul Airport, removing the reference to the previous president.
Kabul Airport attack 2021
On August 26, at least 183 people were killed when a powerful bomb blast struck the perimeter of Kabul International Airport. Amid the 2021 evacuation from Afghanistan, the IS-KP terrorist group carried out a suicide bombing attack at Abbey gate, where the US and British troops were deployed to guard the area. According to the reports, after the explosion, the IS-KP gunmen opened fire on the ground. Thirteen US service members and more than 100 Afghanistan civilians lost their lives in that suicide bomb attack.
A month later the terrorist attack, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Afghanistan asked foreign airlines to reactivate their flights to Kabul, saying that the resulting debris at the airport had been cleaned up. Earlier, the Gulf country Qatar sent its engineering teams to Kabul Airport to repair some navigation and radio systems that were destroyed in the attack.
Although the flight operations in Kabul Airport are far from normal, hopes are still alive as the airport is set to operate under the management of the UAE aviation authority.