The Associated Press September 27, 2011, 11:28AM ET

Gulf Air criticizes Afghanistan over landing spat

One of the few foreign airlines flying to Afghanistan is accusing Kabul of unfairly breaching an aviation deal and leaving flights in limbo after refusing its planes landing rights.

The dispute with Gulf Air highlights the challenges in attracting and keeping foreign business in Afghanistan. The war-ravaged country is in desperate need of outside investment, but continues to grapple with widespread corruption as well as policies that often seem to change on a whim.

In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Gulf Air CEO Samer Majali said two of the company's planes were unexpectedly denied permission to land in Afghanistan in recent days. This forced one of the flights to turn back as it neared the Afghan capital and left the carrier scrambling to rebook passengers on alternate flights.

Afghan aviation authorities refused the landing rights after asking Gulf Air to cut its flights from four to two per week. Majali said that request goes against an agreement between Afghanistan and Gulf Air's home of Bahrain that he says allows up to eight flights a week -- twice the number it had been operating.

"It's just nonsensical. ... Somebody says you can fly, then they change their mind," Majali said. "They're trying to normalize the country ... and yet they do something which is uncivilized. It's unprofessional."

A spokesman for Afghanistan's transportation ministry, Nangyalai Qalatwal, acknowledged that officials had asked Gulf Air to reduce the frequency of its flights, but denied that they had acted improperly.

He said the ministry acted following pressure from domestic carriers.

"There were complaints from the Afghan airlines regarding this contract with Gulf Air. They wanted us to stop their flights, but instead we decreased" the frequency, Qalatwal said. "We have the authority to stop (all) their flights, but we are not doing that. They should respect our decision."

Gulf Air faces another test Wednesday, when its next plane is due to head for Kabul. The company's CEO said it remains unclear whether that flight will get the go-ahead.

The dispute came to a head last Wednesday when a Gulf Air flight was denied permission to land after it entered Afghan airspace, Majali said. That plane, carrying 117 passengers, was forced to land in the Gulf city of Dubai instead.

"They actually turned an airplane around in mid-air," Majali said. "You just don't do that."

Gulf Air's next flights on Saturday and Sunday received landing clearance, but permission was again denied for Monday's flight.

Majali said if the dispute drags on, the carrier may be forced to reduce its flight schedule permanently or consider pulling out of the Afghan market altogether.

Gulf Air began flying to Kabul from the Bahraini capital Manama in mid-June.

Persian Gulf cities such as Manama and Dubai are among the most popular transit points for government officials, aid workers and businesspeople traveling to Afghanistan.

However, Qalatwal said the airline was singled out in part because Afghan carriers complained that there wasn't enough business through Bahrain to justify them setting up their own routes.

Afghan carriers route most of their flights through the Mideast's busiest airport in Dubai, which offers a wide range of long-haul connections. It is a particularly valuable hub for travel to the West because Afghan carriers are barred from flying directly to Europe.

Other airlines in the region apparently haven't been affected by the Gulf Air dispute, though Qalatwal said Afghan authorities are reviewing all foreign aviation contracts.

Discount carrier FlyDubai said it continues to operate two flights a day between Kabul and Dubai. In a statement, it said it works "very closely with the UAE and Afghan authorities on an ongoing basis to ensure our flights meet the anticipated demand for travel between Dubai-Kabul."

Turkish Airlines, which recently launched flights three times a week between Kabul and Istanbul, said that service is also running normally.

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Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed reporting.


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