AVIATION, history of civil aviation since 1927.
(1) Iranian Airways
(2) Persian Air Services
(3) United Iranian Airlines
The first time that a man was sent up into the air in Iran occurred in 1891, during the reign of Nāṣer-al-Din Shah (r. 1848-96). On two different occasions, foreigners, a French man (Ṭoluʾi, p. 24) and an American (ʿAyn-al-Salṭana, pp. 747, 786) went up in their own balloons in Tabriz and Tehran during an air show. At the end of 1913, the people of Tehran saw for the first time an airplane flying over the city. The residents were taken to the streets to have a closer look at the strange bird flying overhead. The airplane landed on the Meydān-e Mašq, the army exercise field in the city center. Upon landing, it collided with a parked canon in the field, knocked its barrel, and was badly damaged. The airplane had been built in France, and was named Bleriot XI, but a Russian pilot had flewn the aircraft from Russia to Tehran. Iranian technicians repaired the aircraft in the army repair shop, and the plane was later flown back to Russia (Ṭoluʾi, p. 55-56).
The Iranian Air Force has its own specific history, and deserves special attention beyond this entry. A few years after its foundation it was named the Imperial Irainan Air Force. From humble beginnings in 1921 the air force grew to become an outstanding, strong and technologically advanced air force, whose pilots were highly educated and showed exceptional bravery and heroism.
Due to the political situation during early1920s, military airplanes were deemed highly valuable in chasing the mutinous groups in different parts of the country. After the coup d’état of 1921, Reżā Khan (d. 1944), as the supreme commander of the armed forces, contemplated the foundation of an Iranian Air Force. He appointed Reżā Mizāni and an aide to conduct a feasibility study of the creation of an air force, and in 1922, the Iranian government purchased its first aircraft from Germany.
Originally the Iranian government had approached the U.S. administration to negotiate the purchase of American military aircrafts and to organize the training of pilots and technicians. But the Americans rejected the request, arguing that such an agreement would violate the disarmement clauses of the post-World War I peace treaties. Other countries, however, did not share the U.S. position. The first Iranian purchase was a German Junkers F13, and in 1923, two additional Junkers F13 airplanes were acquired with revenues of the provinces of Gilān and Māzandarān, due to a shortage of government funds. These the two airplanes were named after these two provinces. Until 1925, an array of diverse types of Russian, French, and British aircraft was added to the Iranian fleet.
In June of 1923, the first group of officers was dispatched to France for training. Colonel Aḥmad Ḵan Naḵjavān was selected for pilot training. After the completion of flight school Naḵjavān left Paris on a Breguet 19 airplane, which was marked with an Iranian flag and logo, to land on the Ḡala Morḡi airfield on 5 Esfand 1304/25 February 1925. This officer earned the title of Iran’s first military pilot, and was later appointed the commander-in-chief of the Iranian air force. In June of 1924 ten more officers were sent to the Soviet Union for flight training. Three were later commissioned to fly three newly purchased DeHaviland DH 9A aircraft to Iran, though only ʿIsā Eštodaḵ reached Tehran on 27 February 1925.
Junkers was one of the Germany’s largest airplane manufacturers, and in 1926 it signed a five-year agreement with the Iranian government to organize an airmail service in Iran. The new company was registered as Junkers Airline in Iran (Junkers Luftverkehr Persien / Hawāpeymāʾi Yunkers dar Irān). In May 1927, the company rented at Dušān Tappa a piece of land as its base airport. The company used Junkers F13 aircraft, which could accommodate two pilots and four passengers.
The first scheduled air services officially commenced on 8 February 1927, which marked a milestone in the history of Iranian commercial aviation. Junkers offered bi-weekly passenger air services from Tehran to Bandar-e Pahlavi (see ANZALI) and two-weekly flights to Qaṣr-e Širin via Hamadān and Kermanshah (Aṭrvaš, p. 86). The northbound route was later extended to Baku in Soviet Azerbaijan in February 1928, while the westbound route was continued to Baghdad. Subsequently, more routes were added: a southwest route to Bušehr via Isfahan and Shiraz; a northeast service to Mashad; and northwest service to Tabriz via Qazvin.
Between 1927 and 1932, Junkers effectively provided the services of a small domestic and regional airline. It served approximately 10 cities in Iran, as well as Baku, Baghdad, and Kabul, with scheduled flights, carrying a considerable number of passengers, as well as cargo and mail. Junkers also organized the first Iranian airmail service with Europe, via Baku and Moscow. Junkers ceased its operations in 1932, and until the government founded a state airline in 1938, there was not any civilian and commercial airline services offered in Iran.
The Ministry of Post and Telegram embarked on a plan to acquire its own airplanes to organize airmail in 1938, and purchased two De Havilland DH 89 (also known as Dragon Rapide). This fleet later increased to four aircraft, and air force personnel handled, maintained, and flew these airplanes. Internationally, this airline was known as Iranian State Airlines, and it carried passengers on airmail flights (Alai’i, p. 650). This government service offered weekly flights from Tehran to Kermanshah and Baghdad, and added later services from Tehran to Isfahan, Shiraz, and Bušehr.
(1) Iranian Airways
In December 1944, a group of influential and affluent Iranian dignitaries and investors established Iranian Airways, the first Iranian commercial airline that was privately owned. Some its partners had also been involved in the foundation of Irantour, the first Iranian travel and tourism organization, which had started doing business prior to Iranian Airways. The start-up capital of Iranian Airways was 50 million rial, and Reżā Afšār was the driving force behind the project. It took about 18 months, from December 1944 until May 1946, for the company to be ready for operations.
In 1945, Iranian Airways signed an agreement for technical assistance with Trans World Airlines (TWA), which acquired a 10 percent share in Iranian Airways. In March 1945, Iranian Airways purchased three C-47 airplanes (also known as DC-3 and Dakota) which the U.S. military were selling as surplus equipment, and these airplanes, who had been converted into passenger carriers, arrived in Tehran on 17 May 1947 (Iseman, p. 72). The new airline systematically enlarged its fleet by buying more DC-3 airplanes, and at one point the fleet comprised 20 airplanes. The first scheduled services covered flights from Tehran to Mashad, and services were later extended to flights from Tehran to Isfahan, Shiraz, Bušehr, Ābādān, and Ahvāz, as well as a few limited flights to Zāhedān. At the time, only the airports in Tehran and Ābādān were adequately operational.
At the outset, most pilots and the technical personnel, who were employed by the TWA, were Americans. But at the end of 1946, the air force assigned Colonel Moṣṭafawi, Major Ḵādemi (please see below) and Lieutenant Rafʿat to serve as pilots in Iranian Airways, while Dāryuš Temsār joined the company after having received his pilot training at the Iranian Aero Club. This club also trained women pilots, and granted at this time pilot licences to ʿEffat Tejārači, Enāʾ Āvšid and Ṣadiqa Dowlatšāhi, and Iranian Airways later authorized one of them to fly as first officer (co-pilot) on a DC-3.
When Iranian Airways started its operations, they faced for quite some time illegal competition with the Soviet airline Aeroflot. The Soviet airline used inside Iran D-3 airplanes, which they had received from their U.S. allies during World War II in order to defend themselvs against the Nazi occupation. When the Iranian Airways employees arrived at Tehran’s Mehrābād Airport to start the check-in procedure of the inaugural flight to Mashad, all booked passengers had been lured away by Aeroflot’s lower prices.
In 1953, Trans Ocean Airlines, one of the lesser known U.S. carriers, leased two Convair aircraft to Iranian Airways, and assisted Iranian Airways in various ways with its day to day operations. In 1958, the Iranian government bought three modern turboprop Vickers Viscounts aircraft, which were considered luxury airliners, and put them at the service of Iranian Airways. Iranian Airways operated to 14 domestic and 10 regional destinations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, as well as in Dubai and Kuwait in the Persian Gulf. The company also conducted cargo flights to its international destinations in Ankara, Milan, Zurich, and Frankfurt.
In 1949, Reżā Afšar acquired 70 percent of the Iranian Airways ownership, and assumed the responsibilites of the company’s managing director, in addition to serving as the chairman of the board. But because of its chronic financial difficulties the company was unable to modernize its fleet and improve the quality of its service to the satisfaction and expectations of its Iranian customers. Moreover, the company’s chronic lack of adequate safety led to a number of unfortunate accidents that jeopardized human lives. The most serious accident occurred in 1952 at Tehran’s Mehrābād Airport, when 27 people died. These problems informed in the late 1950s the decision of the Iranian government to nationalize the airline industry.
(2) Persian Air Services
In 1954 Aḥmad Šafiq founded Persian Air Service (PAS) as a cargo airline, and served as its managing director. The company started its operations with the technical support from Skyways, a British aviation company, and focused on a Europea cargo service from Tehran via Ābādān to Beirut, Brindisi and Basle. PAS also offered some Tehran-Geneva flights by Avro York under the charter with Trans Mediterranean Airway (TMA), a successful Lebanese all cargo airline. Later PAS became associated with SABENA, the Belgian national airline, which leased a DC-7C aircraft to PAS so that PAS could provide direct passenger service to Geneva, Paris, Brussels, and London.
(3) United Iranian Airlines
In August 1961 the Iranian government decided to found United Iranian Airlines as a publicly traded company. The Iranian government held 51 percent of its shares, and Iranian Airways and PAS each received 20 percent, while the remaining 9 percent of shares were to be sold to the public. The company collapsed almost immediately, but the concept paved the way for the nationalization of Iran’s airline industry with the establishment of the Iranian National Airline.
The Iran National Airline Corporation (Havāpeymā’i Melli Irān, also known as HOMA, the acronym of its first two letters, and Iran Air) was founded in February 1962. The Iranian parliament passed a decree that allowed the new company to acquire all assets and liabilities of Iranian Airways and Persian Air Services in order to take over both companies. The start-up capital was 170 million rial, 50 million cash investment and 120 million in airplanes. Major General ʿAli Moḥammad Ḵādemi (1913-78; see KHADEMI) who at that time was the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Air Force, was appointed as the company’s managing director because he was very familiar with commercial aviation. Ḵādemi, who in 1966 was promoted to Lieutenant General in the Air Force, managed Iran Air for 17 years, and succeeded at making it a worldclass airline of undisputed international standing.
Iran Air’s managing director (1962-78). Ḵādemi was a gifted, self-made, tireless, hard-working man and a management and leadership genius. He was an uncompromising fighter with unusual fortitude and self-confidence, who did not accept anything less than perfect. Utterly fair and honest, he possessed a strong human spirit, an extremely light heart and wonderful sense of humor. As a young man Ḵādemi was the first Iranian air force officer to obtain both a license from the British Aviation Authorities and the Commercial Pilot License no. 1 from the Iranian Civil Aviation Department. Afterwards Ḵādemi flew as captain airplanes of both the Iranian State Airlines and Iranian Airways (please see above), and developed the vision of building a national airline as the ultimate flag carrier. Since Ḵādemi hated favoritism, he hired his staff according to their qualifications and gave young men and women, particularly those who were not from or related to the privileged classes, unprecedented opportunities for growth. Although the Iran Air success story is attributed to a team of highly dedicated managers and staff, it was Ḵādemi who among many other things hand-picked and coached a group of capable men and women to build and run Iran Air. Ḵādemi was charged with infinite passion and stamina in the pursuit of his vision, but despite his selfless dedication to Iran’s aviation industry, his assassination prevented him from completing his 15-year plan of making Iran Air one of the world’s leading airlines.
Iran Air achieved international prestige in a relatively short time despite its undistinguished beginnings. Even though it was a small company, if compared to the mega airlines, Iran Air was soon considered one of the major players in the world of aviation. Known as the fastest growing airline in the world, Iran Air was an extremely well run and professionally managed national and international airline. Within a few years, its workforce grew from 700 to over 12,000 skilled personnel. Iran Air acquired and put into service one of the most advanced and well-maintained fleets of brand-new, all-jet aircraft, while holding an excellent safety record among its prominent worldwide competitors. In 1970, Ḵādemi was the first Asian manager to be elected president of the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), the most important regulating body of the commercial aviation industry. But most importantly, though Iran Air was a state-owned airline, it remained a profitable enterprise without receiving any subsidies until 1979. Its financial self-sufficiency was unprecedented inside and outside Iran, since in the 1960s and 1970s most airlines, large and small, were not only in debt, but on the verge of bankruptcy. Ḵādemi’s success was made possible because he managed to obtain special privileges from the Iranian government. He combined great authority with independence from government interference while abolishing bureaucratic barricades, and Iran Air could remain a purely commercial airline without being subjected to politics. During the 17 years of Ḵādemi’s stewardship Iran Air generated the highest amount of foreign currency revenue after the Iranian National Oil Company.
Fleet modernization. One of the company’s important priorities was to modernize its fleet. In the early 1960s, when the jet era had already begun, it was no longer feasible for an airline to operate obsolete propeller airplanes, and the transition from propeller airplane to jetliner was a complex process that demanded careful research and planning. Iran Air decided to acquire Boeing aircraft with Pratt & Whitney engines and to lease B727-100 from Boeing until the ordered airplanes were ready for delivery. The fleet was enlarged to comprise a family of 29 Boeing aircraft: short-range Boeing 737 with with two engines; medium to semi-long range tri-motor B727-100, B727-200 (FIGURE 1) and B707; and the long range B747-100, B747-200 and B747Special Performance (FIGURE 2). The B747SP was the latest version of the B747, and only Pan American Airways and Iran Air did immediately purchase this model. The Iran Air fleet grew to 35 all jet aircraft, when the comparny acquired 6 airbus. At this stage the company carried close to five million passengers a year. Under the company’s 15-year plan for the period 1975-90, most of its older aircraft were to be replaced.
The Concorde. Since Moḥammad Reżā Shah (r. 1941-79) was interested in the new supersonic aircraft, Iran Air had to express interest in ordering a Concorde for its fleet. In June 1972, the British flew a Concorde to Tehran during a 30 day demonstration tour in the Middle East, the Far East, and Australia. The experts of Iran Air concluded that the Concorde was not a suitable choice for their airline. Their reports to the shah advised against its purchase for economic and operational reasons while expressing doubts about the Concorde’s commercial future in general, and to everyone’s surprise the shah cancelled the order.
Safety. Ḵādemi was very concerned about the safety of passengers and crew, and made safety Iran Air’s highest priority. Accordingly, unrestricted human and financial resources were made available in order to achieve this goal. The international recognition of Iran Air’s exemplary safety standards was reflected in the safety certificate, granted to Iran Air by the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency. Iran Air’s international prestige was further enhanced in 1976, when Iran Air was considered one of the world’s safest airlines in a widely read study of airplane accidents (Eddy).
Pilot training. Initially Iran Air pilots were either Iranians who had received their pilot training in the Air Force, or foreigners. But the number of Iranian Air Force pilots was rather small, and foreign pilots were too expensive, so that the pilot shortage posed a serious challenge to the company’s successful operations. The management therefore decided to establish a pilot training program for Iranian men who were to work exclusively for Iran Air. This novel initiative was later imitated by a few other airlines. In the 1960s the first group of trainees who had been selected through a series of rigid exams received basic training in Iran, and were then dispatched for further training to American Flyers, one of the finest flight schools in the U.S.A.
International travel. Before Iran Air was launched as a national airline in 1962, air travel abroad was limited to a rather small group of wealthy people. Since Iran Air intended to make international air travel affordable for a much larger group of Iranians regardless of their social status, it convinced the government to permit a 40 percent discount on Iran Air tickets for students and for government employees, including family members, close relatives and dependants.
Foreign airlines took full advantage of Iran’s lucrative air travel market, because only with the launch of Iran Air could Iran establish its own competitive national carrier. But Iran Air did never fully exercise its domestic privileges, because it would have been necessary that the Iranian government had embarked on a series of bilateral negotations with foreign governments to change existing bilateral agreements. Nonetheless, in the 1970s, Iran Air began to decentralize its operations inside Iran in order to develop regional airports into independent hubs of international air travel. Before the Iranian Revolution, direct flights to Europe and countries in the Persian Gulf were already operated from Ābādān and Shiraz.
The above mentioned modernization of the fleet went hand in hand with the expansion of Iran Air’s flight frequencies and routes. Since European destinations were sufficiently covered, the development of Iran Air’s U.S. services was given priority. The first Iran Air flight to New York’s JFK Airport took off from Tehran on 15 May 1975, and Iran Air had also plans for offering flights to Los Angeles. But on 4 November 1979, when the U.S. embassy staff in Tehran were taken hostage, Iran Air operations in the U.S. were terminated. In the 1970s Iran Air offered flights to Beijing and Tokyo, and had opened offices in Bangkok, Manila, and Singapore to prepare for the establishment of future services. Under the company’s 15-year plan for the period 1975-90, Iran Air was also supposed to begin services to Australia and Africa.
Diversification and subsidiary. Iran Air diversified to a limited extent in 1970s and became involved into other aviation related businessesm such as the Homa Hotel Group. In addition, the company founded the airline subsidiary Iran Air Tours.
Sponsorship and promotion. The company sponsored Iranian sport teams and atheletic competitions to foster children’s physical education and to improve the health of the Iranian youth. Outside the country the company sponsored Iranian arts and culture to introduce foreigners to Iran and to promote tourism inside Iran.
After the revolution in 1978-79, the Iranian airline industry entered a new phase, which was marked by regression and extensive deterioration. From the beginning of the 1980s until the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, domestic and international travel was considerably reduced since the Iranian government imposed severe restrictions on its citizens who wished to travel abroad.
A few months into the revolution, the national flag carrier Iran Air began to undergo a massive transformation. The company’s name was enlarged with “the Airline of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” and the airplanes’ livery was changed at large expense. It became impossible for knowledgeable and experienced executives to continue their work, and inexperienced, in many cases incompetent, outsiders were hired for important positions. The loss of qualified CEOs was accompanied by the devastating loss of experienced middle-managers and well-trained, specialized personnel. The collective dismassal of qualified employees for political reasons discouraged the remaining workforce, many of whom quit or took early retirement.
Since 1980 the turnover of CEOs has been high. Yet most CEOs were not professional managers with previous experience in the airline business, and so they were actually trained on the job. Usually they were replaced before they had had any real opportunity for applying their new knowledge to their company. Moreover, none of these CEOs ever introduced a strategic plan for the Iran Air’s long term growth and development, since all of them were only involved with the company’s day to day operations. Since Iran Air, like most of Iran’s industries, was dependant on access to the U.S. market for the maintenance of its technical equipment, the absence of a contingency plan ensured that the company’s operations were severely crippled by the economic sanctions which followed the collapse of Iran’s diplomatic relations with the U.S.A.
After the ceasefire agreement of 1988, the demand for air travel services enormously increased. Since the two state-owned airlines Iran Air and Āsemān (the former Pars Air) seemed incapable of meeting the abrupt demand, the Iranian government changed the law and established such low standards that interested parties could much more easily set up new commercial airlines. Since it was possible to obtain an airline license from the government for the investment of a mere 2 billion rial, many opportunist investors immediately applied for airline licenses and before long at least 14 new Iranian airlines had been founded. Iran has now an unprecendented large number of commercial airlines of both private and state ownership, though neither Iran Air nor most of the other airlines are profitable. Many are losing money, and they are creeping towards bankruptcy since their finances are in an alarming state.
The expansion of the domestic air travel ensured that more destinations were served and flight frequencies increased. In the long term, however, this hasty expansion produced chaos in Iran’s air transportation service because the new laws provided inadequate regulation and insufficient enforcement of industry standards. Every airline’s most important asset, the safety of its passengers, crew and aircraft, was jeopardized and so the overall quality of service has continually deteriorated. The number of passenger complaints is greater than ever because of the appallingly poor quality of the airport and in-flight services.
Most of the new airlines leased or purchased obsolete aircraft of the former Soviet republics, and travelers have become used not only to disarray and dissatisfaction but also to disasters and the loss of human life. Frequent accidents and human fatalities have given the Iranian airline industry one of the worst reputations in the world, although Iran Air was for many years recognized as the world’s safety champion. On 21 January 1980, the first fatal airplane accident after the revolution claimed 129 lives. The most disastrous accident occurred on 3 July 1988, when the Iran Air Airbus 655 was shot down over the Persian Gulf and 290 people perished. The inacceptable state of the civil aviation industry has become the subject of acute criticism by the Iranian public.
Nur-al-Din ʿAlā’i, Az mongolfira tā šāh, Tehran, 1952.
ʿAbbās Aṭrvaš, Tāriḵča-ye hawāpeymāʾi-e bāzagāni dar Irān, Tehran, 2007.
Qahramān Mirzā Sālur ʿAyn-al-Salṭana, Ruznāma-ye ḵāṭerāt, ed. Masʿud Sālur and Iraj Afšār, 10 vols., Tehran, 1995-2001; continuous pagination of vols. I-X.
Paul Eddy et al., Destination Disaster: From the Tri-Motor to the DC-10 – The Risk of Flying, New York, 1976.
Joseph S. Iseman, Nine Months on a Flying Carpet, New York, 1991.
Ḥosayn Maḥbubi Ardakāni, Tāriḵ-e moʾassasāt-e tamaddoni-e jadid dar Irān, 3 vols., Tehran, 1975-89; 2nd ed., 3 vols., Tehran, 1992-97.
Morteżā Ṭolūʾi, Tāriḵ-e niru-ye hawā’i šahanšahi-ye Irān, Tehran, 1976.
Originally Published: November 5, 2010
Last Updated: August 17, 2011