Remembering the Flight: What Iran Needs If Sanctions End

With an aging fleet of planes, Iran needs hundreds of new aircraft to end white-knuckle travel.

An Iran Air Boeing 747 passenger plane sits on the tarmac at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran. (Photo: Behrouz Mehri/Getty Images)

Jul 15, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

The Iran Air flight from Shiraz to Esfahan took little more than an hour, but I may have lost a few years of my life to stress and my not-entirely-unrealistic fear that the plane might fall out of the sky.

It was 2003, and the plane’s dated interior made boarding like stepping into the 1970s. That makes sense, considering the “Airline of the Islamic Republic of Iran” has been trapped in time since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the decades of sanctions that followed.

Maybe it’s all the times I’ve read poet Forough Farrokhzad’s famous line “Remember the flight, the bird is mortal,” but my long-ago trip was the first thing that came to mind after news this week that a global team of negotiators came to a tentative deal that could relieve the crippling sanctions on Iran, opening the country to Western business.

To be fair, my anxiety about flying might get the best of me on the most modern jet. Looking around the midsize plane’s cabin, it was clear that countless passengers before me had snuggled into the narrow, well-worn seats, which still had ashtrays and wobbled a bit. It was a hot summer night, and the air conditioning was as nonexistent as the in-flight entertainment. Swathed sweatily in the hijab, I found myself in a full-fledged anxiety spiral as the plane rattled to life and began moving.

That Iran Air plane was the oldest I’d ever been on—and the country’s fleet has some of the oldest in the sky. On average, Iran Air planes are about 27 years old—regional competitor Emirates’ planes are about seven years old on average, and Virgin America’s planes are about 6.4 years on average. Iran’s planes are such antiques that aviation bloggers write enthusiastic posts about flying in these long-lost wonders of the sky. Less wonderful: With some frequency, they fall from the sky. Months before my visit, there was a crash of an Iranian military plane: Strong winds were blamed for hundreds of deaths. How many died? Some reports said 302. Some said 276. Still in journalism school—and too young to die, I kept telling myself—my skin crawled with the idea that the reporting could be so disparate.

My anxious reality was daily life for Iranians, however, and a small taste of what living under sanctions is like. Sanctions have tightened considerably in the 12 years since my trip—from informal reports of the ever-multiplying price of my grandmother’s poultry to shocking statistics that families living in poverty nearly doubled as the value of Iran’s currency, the rial, plummeted in recent years.

On that rickety plane, I tried to keep my American sensibility and privilege in check and my reaction to myself. Iran Air—though just as hospitable and organized as any other airline, with young, handsome pilots and attentive stewards in neat, modest uniforms—was fundamentally held back by sanctions, yes. But Iranians still had places to go—I was traveling from Shiraz, where I paid respects at the tomb of the poet Hafiz, to the ancient city I still love best in the world, magical Esfahan. My onetime experience intersected all too briefly with regular Iranians who were just living their lives.

The only somewhat modern update, so to speak, to the season 1 Mad Men–era Iran Air plane was that the seats had been ripped out and reconfigured to leave space between them. We figured it was to keep strangers from touching, to stay in line with Islamic law, which forbids the sort of sardine situations that happen to middle-seat passengers in the West. In Iran, your flanks aren’t supposed to mush up against the side flesh of a meaty seat neighbor of the opposite sex.

Despite sleepless red-eyes in that dreaded middle seat, most of my travel discomfort can be described as minor. Compared with most Iranians, who can’t even get visas to visit any number of Western countries, my American passport has opened the world to me. I am the same age as the Islamic Revolution that changed Iran’s relationship to the world, but I was born in the U.S. to Iranian immigrants. I was lucky that they believed in the importance of global travel as a means of forming a humanitarian perspective. They prioritized my exposure to other countries and believed in my knowing their motherland. Before 2003, I’d had the opportunity to take the long, pricey trip to Tehran several times.

I’ve flown on any number of national airlines on international trips to get to Iran and other places—and savored the experience many times. I pilfered KLM-engraved silverware from the sleek Dutch-operated airline, sneaked off with adorable little red plastic coffee cups from Alitalia. I discovered exactly what blue cheese tasted like on a Lufthansa flight—terrible, I decided at age 11. LanChile flights have skipped me from ancient ruins to the Amazon in comfort—but I was too altitude sick to make off with any illicit souvenirs that I can recall.

On Iran Air, my hands were too full of armrest to take anything. I remember the faded seat fabric was embroidered—quality, what a throwback—with the state-owned airline’s insignia of a Homa bird, a winged mythological beast not unlike a griffin. In some Persian mythology, the Homa never lands and flies above Earth for eternity. In others, the Homa rises from ashes after it renews itself in fire. Neither vision of the winged beast that is part bird, part horse is particularly comforting when it’s the symbol of the plane you’re on—and that aircraft is older than you are.

When a deal was reached Tuesday to reduce sanctions in exchange for accountability in Iran’s nuclear program, business publications wrote eager headlines about fresh business prospects. I couldn’t help thinking of the airplanes Iran could buy. The planes Iran should buy.

Bloomberg estimates the country needs a $20 billion investment to update its fleet. Late last year, for the first time since 1979, Boeing was allowed to sell Iran $120,000 worth of charts and manuals under a small relaxation of sanctions.

Like much of the world, I hope the deal paves the way for a lasting peace, and maybe even some functional diplomacy between Iran and the United States. Time will tell how the accord will change life for Iranians and the country’s fraught relationship with the world, but 36 years is long enough to weigh the effects of sanctions. That suffering has been borne by a country of 77 million people who don’t seem to have much say in a democracy that can be overruled by the notions of their supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Dissidents and journalists line the cells of the country’s notorious prisons, and the broader public bears the brunt of whatever the political apparatus in Iran wishes—a human rights discussion that was absent from the Iran deal.

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As the American-born daughter of an Iranian mechanical engineer who always seemed to be thinking about functional ways to improve every little thing, I keep coming back to the planes.

I was raised in Southern California, where Iranian American friends and neighbors worked in American aerospace—Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, even the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Iranian Americans are among the most successful and educated minority groups in the United States. They helped build airplanes, satellites, and rockets—and led successful lives in the U.S. while their relatives relied on aging jets and their homeland fell behind in many matters. This was the fate of many of Iran’s engineers and accountants and professionals, a generation that fled an oppressive government and ended up building American planes and advancing American technology on the other side of the world.

Maybe the American planes that Iran buys will have been designed or built, in some small part, by the engineers who fled their homeland for the chance to succeed.