In the glare of the floodlights at a remote Home Counties airfield the crew of an Iran Air passenger jet set about a discreet spot of sanctions busting. The bizarre sight of the Tehran-bound plane has become a regular event as it refuels at one of the UK’s smallest airports so the scheduled flight can return to Iran.
Banned from filling up at Heathrow because of Western-imposed sanctions, the plane with up to 266 passengers has just made the quick hop to a virtually deserted Kent International Airport at Manston. Two fuel trucks bearing the insignia of Manston airport quickly arrive to make sure the jet has enough fuel for the six‑hour flight home.
For the past three months the regular Iran Air flights have taken a 40-minute diversion from Heathrow to the dimly-lit airfield near Ramsgate three times a week on the scheduled service to the Middle East.
On Thursday the Airbus 300-600, flight number IR170, landed at 5.40pm and taxied to an area near the tiny terminal building. It remained on the ground for an hour as the fuel was delivered and officials at the privately-owned airfield were paid for the transaction. Just a day earlier another Tehran-bound Iran Air jet from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam was spotted landing at Manston for a refuelling stop.
A spokesman for struggling Manston Airport, owned by loss‑making New Zealand company Infratil, insisted the deal was not breaching guidelines in place against the hardline regime of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over its nuclear programme. He said:
“We are complying with all the regulations laid down by the Civil Aviation Authority. There is no reason why we shouldn’t do it. As a small airport we have to do business where we can. We have flights from Iran Air refuelling on a regular basis.”
Infratil also owns Glasgow Prestwick Airport but together with Manston the two UK airports made a combined loss of almost £6million last year as passenger numbers fell. Oil giants BP and Shell have refused to service the Iranian jets at Heathrow and only this week the US joined the UK in announcing tough new measures against Iran. The UK said it was cutting all ties with Iranian banks as Chancellor George Osborne said all credit and financial institutions had to cease trading with Iranian ones.
Two-thirds of Iran Air’s planes are already banned from flying within Europe because of safety concerns. The Iran Air planes are able to land safely at Manston, a vital RAF base during the Second World War, because of its long runway. Manston Airport is considered a sanctions loophole as it has no direct business links with the US, which fears the Iranians are developing a nuclear bomb.
A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority said:
“We don’t get involved in the politics of whether it is right for the planes to land there because of sanctions in place in the UK.”
Express.co.uk 27th Nov 2011