Norwegian Air’s ongoing nightmare in Iran
January 16 2019 08:10 PM
Alex Macheras
Alex Macheras

By Alex Macheras

In mid-December 2018, a new Norwegian Air Boeing 737 MAX 8 made perhaps the costliest, and complex diversion/emergency landing a Western airline could make — by landing a broken, brand new, US-manufactured Boeing jet in the sanctions-hit Islamic Republic of Iran.

Like many brand new commercial aircraft, Boeing’s 737 MAX’s entry-into-service has been far from straightforward. On an inbound Norwegian Air flight from Dubai (DXB) to Oslo (OSL), the flight crew of the two-month-old Boeing 737 MAX 8 received an engine oil low-pressure indication on engine #1, prompting an engine shut-down, and an emergency descent towards the closest available airport at the time, Shiraz International — located in south-central Iran.

While the passengers were able to continue the rest of their journey to Norway the following day, the same cannot be said for the crippled $117mn jet, which — nearly one month since the original diversion — remains sat on the tarmac in a country under severe economic sanctions by the US.

The complications surrounding the grounding of this jet are both logistical and political. Crucially, this Norwegian aircraft is in need of an engine repair, which rules out any ‘quick-fix’ option, whereby (if the aircraft was deemed fit-to-fly for around one hour) the jet may have been able to reach nearby aircraft maintenance facilities in Kuwait, for example.

The complications multiply, as even the most basic form of repair will require spare parts, as aircraft do not simply carry a ‘spare set’ of anything on commercial flights. However, with ‘the most severe’ (to quote President Trump) US sanctions on to Iran reinstated in mid, and late-2018, no US-manufactured content can be imported into the Islamic Republic. Importing spare parts for existing aircraft in Iran is also forbidden, as anything with 10% or more US technology content requires US licences.

Norwegian Air’s spokesperson admitted the airline “had never before dealt with regulations on the ground in Iran” and that “paperwork for anything from getting engineers to spare parts” was taking a very long time.

However, the airline is in far more complicated waiting-games than just unfamiliar Iranian paperwork procedures. In order to carry out the necessary repairs to have the 737MAX leave Iran, Norwegian Air is now waiting on the US Treasury for special OFAC licences which will permit the legal import of physical spare parts, and intelligence (engineers) into Iran.

When President Trump announced the reinstatement of US sanctions against Iran, terms stated that “Specific licences may be issued on a case-by-case basis for the exportation or exportation of goods, services, and technology to ensure the safety of civil aviation and safe operation of US-origin commercial passenger aircraft” — a term being exercised for the first time in recent history.

To make matters worse for the airline, delays from the US Treasury over the issuance of special licences are set to continue, as America is in the midst of a national government shutdown, and negotiations to reopen a quarter of the government have been frozen for three weeks. The impact on aviation is being felt across America, and Norwegian Air’s stranded 737 MAX 8 clearly isn’t the top of the US Treasury’s priority list.

Norwegian Air isn’t the most financially sound carrier, and just being one aircraft short will have a financial impact on its operations — although it’s lucky the carrier is currently in a quieter January period, as opposed to the summer months, in which it operates an ambitious, high-frequency schedule, reliant on its entire fleet.

For years, western sanctions limited Iran’s ability to purchase passenger planes. US Sanctions have now left all of Iran’s 14 registered commercial airlines operating ageing, fragile fleet of passenger jets.

Iranian airlines have only been able to fly aircraft they had purchased prior to the restrictions, with the exception of few Airbus and ATR aircraft delivered in between President Obama’s lifting of sanctions, and President Trump’s reinstatement.

The complexities of this essential emergency landing appear to be endless, thus far. With Norwegian Air waiting for special-issued licences in order to repair the jet during a time where the US government is shut down with no end in sight, this Boeing 737 MAX 8 could remain on the ground in Shiraz for much longer than the Scandinavian airline previously envisaged.

The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir

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