International sanctions have piled up against SyrianAir but the carrier is operating at full capacity as civil war has made domestic road travel perilous and Syrian expatriates have few alternatives to get home to see family.
The U.S. Treasury imposed new restrictions on the airline on Thursday accusing it of ferrying weapons for the military but SyrianAir’s domestic flights all have long waiting lists as it offers civilians the safest way to get around.
SyrianAir has been barred from operating flights to the European Union since July last year.
But its fleet of six Airbus 320s and two ATR 72/500s, still flies to the Gulf, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan and Algeria as well as key Damascus ally Russia.
The services provide a lifeline for the large number of Syrian expatriates around the region who have been left with few other ways of getting home after most Arab and Western airlines halted their flights.
“We operate around 20 domestic and international flights a day which means we are carrying around 3,000 passengers,” ground operations director Tareq Wahiba, told AFP in his office at Damascus airport.
“There is not single empty seat and it’s true that we routinely overbook,” he said.
“Now that the summer has arrived, we going to increase our flights from the Gulf as many Syrians want to come home for the holidays despite the situation.”
But it is SyrianAir’s internal flights that have seen the biggest surge in demand as travelers have abandoned the coaches and shared taxis that used to be the preferred means to get around and taken to the skies.
“The troubles have changed the mindset of Syrians,” Wahiba said.
“Before, they’d have never thought of taking the plane. Now it’s the other way round, they’d not even think about travelling by car.”
A team of AFP journalists made a return trip on one of the multi-leg services that have become a mainstay for the carrier, flying from Damascus to Qamishli in the far northeast, then west to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast and back again by the same route.
Tha airline operates 40 domestic flights a week, serving Deir Ezzor in the east as well as Latakia and Qamishli. It used to fly to the main northern city of Aleppo too but rebel fire has closed the airport for several months.
Mutlaq al-Abbas, a local official from a village outside Qamishli, was flying to Latakia to see his doctor, accompanied by his wife, Farah.
“We chose the plane because road travel is not safe,” Abbas said.
“There are armed groups and if we go by car, they’ll steal it; if we go by bus, they’ll stop it and strip us of all our possessions.”
Co-pilot Firas Smaeel is proud of the service the airline provides to civilians who have to travel.
“We flying an Airbus but it’s really a long-distance bus service,” Smaeel said. “It’s vital that we keep it running as the demand is so high.”
Pilot Maher Issa, a joint Syrian-Irish national who has been flying for nearly 30 years, says the biggest obstacle to the airline’s ability to maintain its services is the sanctions imposed by the European Union.
“There are spare parts that we can’t get because Airbus refuses to deliver them so our maintenance crews have to use all their ingenuity to keep our planes in the air,” Issa said.
“And yet, we are a civilian aircraft and today I am flying 11 children, 47 women and 90 men. We have no weapons aboard and no hazardous materials.
“Of course that makes our life difficult but the people it really affects are the passengers.”
The airline also has to contend with lengthy detours on some of its routes because of airspace bans. Its services to Moscow have to fly over Iraq, Iran and Kazakhstan to avoid Turkey, adding two hours to the usual four-hour trip.
Even the airline’s home base at Damascus International Airport is not entirely insulated from the conflict gripping the country.
Rebel fire periodically closes the main highway into the city centre so plane crews often spend the night at the airport to make sure they can turn up for duty.
“I sleep at the airport two nights a week and then I sleep at home for five nights,” Issa said. “That way I’m available if I’m needed.”
But he remains unbowed. “As long as I’ve got an aircraft with an engine and two wings, I’ll keep on flying,” he said.