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AIR TRANSPORT

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.

US/EU bans stunt


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

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SUDAN

‘ The Americans
declared the sanctions
have been lifted – that’s
just on paper.
BUSHRA ABUSHORA ’

“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 would
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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