Afghan airline heads back to the sky
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan's Ariana Airlines has made its first scheduled international flight in almost two and a half years, the latest stage of efforts to get the battered national carrier back in the skies.
Using the airline's only surviving jet -- an ageing Boeing 727-200 -- the flight took about 20 passengers to the Indian capital, New Delhi.
Ariana's international flights were suspended in October 1999 following the imposition of sanctions on Afghanistan by the United Nations.
Those sanctions were finally lifted by the Security Council on January 13.
On board the New Delhi flight were Afghanistan's tourism minister and the airline's president.
Along with the other passengers and crew they were greeted at the Indira Gandhi International Airport with flowers and garlands of marigolds.
The flight took off from Kabul international airport, which reopened last week to international humanitarian and military traffic.
However, for the time being Ariana is the only airline allowed to use the airport for commercial flights.
Initially planes will have to use a taxiway for takeoffs and landings because the main runway was rendered unusable by U.S. bombing.
In its heyday Ariana operated an extensive domestic network. It also flew international routes to destinations as far afield as London and Frankfurt.
Under a management deal with the now defunct U.S. airline Pan Am, Ariana pilots and technicians received the latest training.
However, during years of civil war the fleet was steadily eroded -- either destroyed in fighting or falling into disrepair as a result of a lack of maintenance and spare parts.
Under Taliban rule, with Afghanistan increasingly isolated, Ariana's network shrank to just a handful of destinations in Tajikistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The airline took a further hammering during the U.S. bombing campaign against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network based in the country.
A total of 16 aircraft were destroyed leaving the airline with just two serviceable planes - one Russian-built Antonov 24, used on a twice-weekly domestic service to the western city of Heart, and the ageing 727.
The Boeing has something of a history to it being the very same jet that was hijacked two years ago and flown to London's Stanstead Airport.
Looking to the future once more the airline says its next planned destinations include Iran, Dubai and Uzbekistan, although no dates have yet been set.
Much depends on the acquisition of new aircraft.
Airline officials say they are hoping the United States will provide up to three planes within the near future.
They have also announced plans to recruit an initial intake of 40 in-flight stewardesses.
On the first day of applications earlier this month, more than 140 women applied for a job.
Under the Taliban's rigid interpretation of Islam women were banned from working.
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