One Man's Job: Getting Baghdad Airport off the Ground

By Ilene R. Prusher Writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 9, 2003 | Go to article overview

One Man's Job: Getting Baghdad Airport off the Ground


Ilene R. Prusher Writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Mike Douglas blows past the checkpoint, circumventing the long line of cars waiting to get over the city's July 14th bridge to reach coalition headquarters at the Republican Palace grounds. With a gun perched in its hip- holster, a muscle-ripped arm on the steering wheel, and a commanding composure, Mr. Douglas is waved on by a US soldier who glances at him, looks at his Department of Defense tag, and says, "Go ahead, sir."

His unflappable confidence - not to mention that flashing red light he keeps on the dashboard - are the kinds of things that make it possible for Douglas to do his job. As SkyLink's Middle East operations director, he is in charge of a linchpin of reconstruction: getting the airports in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul up and running again so that people and goods can move smoothly in and out of the country.

Douglas's company is practiced in bringing flight operations to some of the most difficult places on Earth, including war zones and third-world hot spots. "We get in where other people can't and get things done," says Douglas, whose Scottish brogue has been internationalized by a life on the road. "We don't normally look for glory, but I don't think there's been a humanitarian disaster in the last 15 years in which we haven't been involved."

For Douglas and his rare breed of contractors, there's a certain draw to doing what seems like mission impossible. Walking in his desert boots for a day has the feel, at times, of being dropped onto a set of James Bond meets Baghdad.

Donning dark glasses behind the wheel, he sits on his flak jacket in case he rolls over a land mine or explosive device. Each morning, he varies his route to throw off possible attackers.

Unlike most expatriates working here, he drives his own Land Rover, trusting the defensive techniques he's honed over years of dodging danger more than the skills of the average driver. And he insists that a guest take the back seat: If he has to draw his gun, he doesn't want an unarmed person sitting in his line of fire.

Once he gets into the palace, however, Douglas picks up an armed Nepalese man in military uniform, who sits up front and stays near Douglas's side for most of the day. Kalu Gurung is one of several ex- British Army Gurkhas, a special unit of Nepalese whose members have been recruited to serve in the Queen's ranks for nearly 250 years. Douglas says he couldn't do the job without them.

Douglas' tasks, for which SkyLink has an $17.5 million contract from USAID, loom large. At the 35-square-mile airport, formerly known as Saddam International, passenger terminals were damaged by serving as a camp for US soldiers during the invasion of Baghdad. Since sanctions put an end to commercial traffic after 1991, save a trickle of flights that came in after 2000 in defiance of the restriction, equipment was obsolete: There were no computers, no automation. Neither were there any Iraqis with the skills necessary to run a more advanced air terminal.

Even the remaining 727s and 747s belonging to Iraqi Airways are rusting on the tarmac. Unusable, they're serving as models for training emergency rescue workers.

Everything's ready - but not secure

To open, the airport will need to put new customs and immigration policies in place, renew agreements with neighboring countries, and secure deals with commercial carriers. But the runways have been repaired and one terminal is ready to go.

The biggest barrier to putting Baghdad International back on the map is security.

Seventeen thousand troops live or work on the grounds of the airport, which has the capacity to handle 7.5 million passengers a year. The military presence may help explain why the facility is still coming under antiaircraft and mortar fire fairly regularly. Even the roads leading to the airport are considered unsafe by security analysts monitoring Baghdad. …

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