in Air Transport / Features

US/EU bans stunt Sudan's regeneration

Posted 26 May 2020 · Add Comment

Three years after America lifted most sanctions against Sudan, local carriers like Tarco Aviation are still in a fight for survival. Bushra Abushora, the airline’s strategic planning director, told Martin Rivers how the sector is coping.

Last November, Apollo Aviation Group, a US company that manages aircraft assets, was fined $210,000 by the US Government for unwittingly leasing out engines that wound up in the hands of Sudan Airways, the flag-carrier of Sudan, in 2014.
The fact that America lifted its economic embargo of Sudan three years ago failed to deter the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the wing of the US Treasury responsible for sanctions enforcement, from pursuing Apollo.
So, too, did the many mitigating factors that OFAC acknowledged of the case: Apollo had no advance warning that its engines would be passed via intermediaries to Sudan Airways; the engines were ultimately in Sudan for just four months on wet-leased aircraft; and the contract was immediately dissolved when Apollo discovered the slip-up.
To even casual observers, this heavy-handed response leaves little doubt about the seriousness that Washington attaches to violations – deliberate or otherwise – of its sanctions regime.
But it also partly explains why the removal of the decades-old US embargo has done little to ease Sudan’s problems.
“The Americans declared the sanctions have been lifted – that’s just on paper,” said Bushra Abushora, strategic planning director at Tarco Aviation, one of the country’s largest airlines. “Things are the same. We are still having problems. We can’t buy spare parts; you can’t even make a request. You have to go to Boeing, and Boeing refers to the sanctions that are still there.
“On paper, yes, it’s true. But actually it’s not true. All airline operations are sanctioned.”
The hurdles Abushora was referring to include America’s designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism – a historic classification slapped on Omar al-Bashir, the country’s former dictator, in 1993. His removal from power in a military coup last year has not affected the designation.
Separate export requirements imposed by the US Department of Commerce also remain active, an OFAC spokesperson confirmed to Arabian Aerospace.
These residual sanctions – coupled with Washington’s strong appetite for retrospective enforcement – mean that it is virtually impossible for western suppliers to enter into commercial agreements with Sudanese companies.
Put simply, nothing has changed for Tarco and the country’s other airlines over the past three years.
Unable to work directly with Boeing or Airbus, they have no choice but to follow the rulebook laid out by Iran’s heavily-sanctioned aviation sector. Second-hand aircraft are bought on the black market with the help of intermediaries – often based in the Gulf, Turkey or Ukraine – who hide their customers’ identities behind shell companies and paper trails.
Sourcing spare parts to keep these aircraft airworthy is no easier. “That is why their prices are four, five, six, even 10 times more expensive than the global average,” Abushora said.
Since launching in 2009, Tarco has defied these challenges and built up a sizable fleet of about nine Boeing 737 Classics and two Fokker 50s.
Several of its aircraft are registered in Gambia to Mid Africa Aviation Company, which is owned by Sudanese investors. Abushora did not clarify the nature of the relationship with Mid Africa, beyond confirming that the set-up has been instrumental in allowing Tarco to expand.
The Fokker 50s were acquired from Sudan Airways and have been placed with subsidiary Eldinder Airlines. They will soon be joined by another two units purchased from Indonesia.
Alongside its domestic network, Tarco runs scheduled flights from Khartoum to 11 overseas points: Amman in Jordan; Asmara in Eritrea; Cairo in Egypt; Dammam, Jeddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia; Doha in Qatar; Entebbe in Uganda; Juba in South Sudan; Kano in Nigeria; and N’Djamena in Chad. Entebbe is operated as a fifth-freedom service via Juba.
As well as evaluating Sharjah and Dubai in the UAE, management are exploring the possibility of running transit flights from west Africa to Saudi Arabia via Sudan.
“West Africans all fly to Europe and then go to the Gulf. You can imagine the long way they have to go,” Abushora noted. “Our geographical location is better for this; passengers can fly directly, save time, save fuel, get better prices.”
He said Tarco is considering basing aircraft in either Kano or N’Djamena to collect passengers from across the sub-region, before transporting them to Saudi Arabia with a technical stop in Khartoum.
Muslim pilgrims are the target market, with Saudi Arabia pledging to triple the number of Umrah visas it issues by 2030. Dakar in Senegal and Lagos in Nigeria are among the spokes being considered for the west African hub, though Abushora stressed that the strategy is still under review and management will “study the whole” of the sub-region.
Elsewhere, flights to Europe are also high on Tarco’s wish list – but only once Brussels has ended its decade-old blacklisting of Sudanese airlines.
“Personally, I think as soon as this ban is lifted we should be there, because so many Sudanese are there and they are suffering too much to come to Sudan,” Abushora said. “Sudan used to have daily flights from London to Khartoum. There used to be connections to Frankfurt, to Paris, to Rome… wherever there are Sudanese communities.”
Sudan Airways first entered Europe in 1959 with the launch of its ‘Blue Nile’ service to London, which included stops in Cairo, Athens and Rome.
The route was initially operated by British United Airways, whose predecessor, Airwork Services, helped to establish Sudan Airways in the aftermath of World War II. Subsequent decades saw the flag-carrier strike sales and purchase agreements (SPAs) with transatlantic airlines to extend its reach into America.
It is these sorts of commercial arrangements, Abushora believes, that will allow Sudan’s airlines to begin rebuilding their networks.
“There are so many kinds of agreements we can have,” he insisted. “We don’t need to have our own station as long as we can have an agreement or a codeshare with someone.”
Closer to home, the neighbouring country of South Sudan, which gained independence from Khartoum in 2011, is another important market.
Sudan’s broader economy was hit hard by the secession of its oil-rich southern territory. But, with few locally based operators in Juba, Tarco is front of the pack to help South Sudan build links with the outside world. On top of its scheduled Khartoum-Juba-Entebbe service, the airline already runs charter flights to the north-western city of Wau.
“Of course we are open for any mutual business,” Abushora said, when asked if he would consider basing an aircraft in South Sudan. “That’s an initiative that has to be taken by them.”
He added, however, that Tarco is not taking part in the Juba government’s efforts to launch a national flag-carrier.
Within Sudan itself, Abushora said there is little direct competition between Tarco, Sudan Airways and Badr Airlines – another privately owned carrier – because their combined operations “can’t even meet the minimum demand” in the country.
The poor state of Sudan’s road and rail infrastructure means that, for many citizens, flying is the only practical way of travelling across the vast desert nation.
But decades of economic isolation have cut services to the bare bones.
Sudan Airways, formerly the country’s largest airline, is now primarily a virtual carrier that depends on wet-leased aircraft from privately owned partners like Tarco. When the company’s last two working aircraft were grounded in 2018, Bloomberg quoted a government minister as saying that 1,200 of its 1,500 employees will be dismissed.
The flag-carrier was hardest hit by sanctions because of its status as a government-owned entity linked directly to al-Bashir. Its fate was sealed when Sudan liberalised traffic rights in a last-ditch effort to keep connected.
“The government didn’t open the skies because it was a policy,” Abushora recalled. “They did it because they were forced to, because of sanctions. They needed to keep people moving.
“Sudan Airways was a really good airline. Then everything stopped.”
Whatever benefits Tarco has gained from deregulation, a bigger prize awaits all Sudanese companies and citizens when the last sanctions are lifted. That is one of the messages that Abdalla Hamdok, Sudan’s Prime Minister, took to Washington in December on the first visit by a Sudanese leader for more than three decades.
The flag-carrier was able to return one aircraft to service exactly a fortnight later.

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