20 April 2014
Frequent flyers of St Andrews: ever heard of IranAir? It used to be one of the finest and most prestigious airlines in the world, when the Shah (King) of Iran, a passionate flying fan, decided to market his country through a world class airline—a bit like Emirates today. IranAir was one of the launch customers of the Boeing 747, the now world famous Jumbo Jet. Back in the day, the company even ordered Concorde planes! However, the Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis at the (former) American Embassy in Tehran stopped the expansionist plans of the growing airline short, as American and then international sanctions kicked in. The exciting, or daunting, thing about IranAir is that not much has changed since the 1980s when you fly with them. The fleet age is between 25 and 30 years on average.
Booking a flight with them is probably the trickiest bit of the whole travel experience. International sanctions have excluded any Iranian business from operating with international payment methods such as VISA or AmericanExpress. The only option is cash. There is one office in the UK, and of course, it is in London. So, a London-based friend of mine put £800 in her bra and paid for my friend’s ticket and my own, in cash. As she sat in the office, I received a call from the travel agent telling me I did not include my middle name in the booking and therefore had to buy a new (*expensive*) ticket. My first thought: “Oh, that’s it for the Spring Break trip.” My second thought: “Hold on. This is Iran. You can discuss everything.” I go with my second thought, and explain I have never experienced that issue before even though I frequently fly with IranAir (a lie…). “Ok then, you might be stopped at the airport, both in UK or Iran. But, it is up to you –Bye!” Needless to say, I was a bit nervous when we left for Heathrow.
It was funny to see the IranAir check-in desks next to VirginAtlantic and Emirates. A policeman who saw me in the queue could not quite believe what he saw: A westerner going with that weird Iranian airline?
With shaking hands, a red face and weak voice, I hand over the precious booking receipt and our passports (note: my travel companion has three middle names!). Yet, the booking agent was so inexperienced with a foreigner (as in Non-Iranian) choosing IranAir to fly, that we got re-directed to their customer service desk. They needed to confirm the visas’ validity, the visas… that we were going to pick up on arrival! A short phone call with me providing hotel reservations and a contact number in Iran were necessary to prove that we were serious about flying with them. And, back we were at check-in… where we received our boarding cards and checked in our luggage without any problem. Was the booking agent just trying to get more money from me?
On board… We had great fun! It’s a vintage plane! An Airbus A300-600, 30 years old with rather erratic air conditioning and worn out (but reclining) seats. The female flight attendants have their hair and neck fully covered—conforming with Iranian national law for all women. Even so, the female passengers could not be bothered with that; they wore high heals, décolletés and a good portion of make up.
The chief purser in the cabin greets you with the following words: “In the name of God, welcome on board the National Airline of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Note: Although everything is branded “IranAir”, the official name was changed to the never-ending “The National Airline of the Islamic Republic of Iran” after the Islamic Revolution. The announcement continues: “May we remind all passengers to adhere to the Islamic Dress Code.” Ironically enough, this announcement is only made in Persian. No need for my non-Farsi speaking, female travel companion to cover her indecent hair then. Not that the other Iranian ladies could be bothered—at that stage.
We take off! Destination… Ljubljana! What?! LJUBLJANA?
I booked a ticket to Tehran! Not to Slovenia! Well… this is a refuelling stop. Since all major European airports buy fuel from Shell, there is no way for IranAir to get it due to sanctions. So that’s the exciting plan for Ljubljana (to be precise: “Brnik Airport”). In the meantime, we receive cake, tea, an orange and sweets—YUM. The sugar high following the snacks prevents us from sleeping, thereby we witness an amazing sunset over the Slovenian Alps before touching down in Ljubljana-Brnik.
The fun begins with take off from Ljubljana: Iranian DINNER!Food en masse: chargrilled chicken, grilled tomatoes, buttery saffron rice, a salad, a yoghurt, bread and cake (again…). How do they, who suffer from massive sanctions, manage to do such a good job, whereas supposedly “fancy” BritishAirways gives you a cookie for a 2h flight?!
The stomach is filled, the screen does not work (note: there is just one screen for everyone, it is an A300-600!), and therefore you might think it’s time to sleep? Ha, think again, there are Iranian children on board! Children are allowed everything in Iran and on-board IranAir. Turbulences? They go for a run. Landing? They play hide and seek with flight attendants. We were the lucky audience of a hysteric child-run fashion show along the aisle, with some hide-and-seek and “I spy with my little eye” happening as well. And, no, they would not stop before landing (at 2h30 am…). Meanwhile, everybody almost got sick because of turbulences over Eastern Turkey, but that is not IranAir’s fault, that is Eastern Turkey’s fault.
The approach to Tehran is a socially and politically significant moment. Because now, it is time for female travellers to adapt to the strict dress code enforced in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Cover your hair with a headscarf, and do not wear anything that fits tight to your body. My travel companion captures the attention of the whole plane: a female westerner adhering to the veil, how exciting! As my friend is wrapping up, we double check with our curious audience: “Is this OK? Can she wear it this way?”
– It’s great, you look fantastic! How come you’re going to Iran?”
– Oh just tourism.
– REALLY?! (Some quizzical looks and whispers: they are tourists! Not diplomats! – Within seconds the 233 passengers are informed about who we are, where we are from and we are going)
“Ladies and gentlemen, in the name of god the merciful, the compassionate, welcome to Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. Please remain seated and keep your seatbelt fastened—” The rest of the speech went missing in the chaos. Everybody gets up and pushes the other ones to be as close to the door as possible. Passengers switch on their (smart)phones, sons of all ages call their mums (“Yes mummy, I just landed, I’m not hungry, don’t worry”) and women readjust their scarves one last time. As we leave the plane, a police officer at the gate checks the dress code. He does not even acknowledge us.
We made it. And we even made it back.