BAGHDAD: Waving his hands wildly in the air, Abdel Al-Khafaji explains that it should not take four hours of security holdups to reach Baghdad airport’s check-in queue … and yet further delays.
"It is really bad," says the 70-year-old Iraqi exile, trying to head home to Denmark, where he has lived for the past 16 years, after a holiday.
"Before, everything was well-managed but now it is so complicated, not just security but the whole process of travel," he says, remarking on the relative ease with which he moved around before the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Khafaji is among many passengers whom the man in charge of Iraq’s airports has to impress.
Adnan Blebil, director general of the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority, has grand plans for Baghdad Airport, 16 km west of the capital, which until the 2003 US-led invasion was known as Saddam International Airport.
More than a decade of UN sanctions followed Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which closed down Iraq’s airports and forced travelers to take the long, costly and at times perilous overland route from Amman.
It left a bitter economic legacy that Blebil intends to reverse. His major problem, however, is securing the five to seven billion dollars needed to make his plans a reality.
"I would like to see European countries, such as France and Germany, come here (and invest), but for some reason they are waiting," says Blebil, 55, a graduate of the Central School of Planning and Statistics in Warsaw.
Billions of dollars are needed, he says, to upgrade the airport’s interior, passenger facilities and infrastructure so that it is on a par with Dubai, the only Middle East airport in the world’s top-30 in terms of passenger numbers.
Government rules and the lack of a satisfactory investment law are among the other barriers inhibiting his vision of an airport campus filled with hotels, banks, convention centres, a business park, cargo village, and shops.
Transport ministry figures show 807,848 passengers landed or took off from the airport last year, compared to more than 37 million in Dubai, according to 2008 figures provided by global monitor Airports Council International.
Although regionally-based carriers Turkish Airlines and Etihad Airways are among those to launch services from Baghdad recently, with Emirates and Lufthansa due to follow this summer, the reason for a lack of greater investment seems obvious.
The road — known as "Route Irish" — from the airport to the capital was nicknamed "RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) alley," after insurgents fired rockets and small arms at passing vehicles in the wake of the invasion.
There are now few security incidents along the heavily-protected highway, whose three lanes have speed limits of 60, 80 and 100 km/h.
The restrictions are routinely ignored by drivers on the return route to the city, betraying its history as one of the most dangerous in the world.
Aircraft were routinely shot at and a DHL Airbus cargo plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile eight months after the invasion, although it managed to land safely.
The normal flight path took planes into the heart of Anbar province, the home of the insurgency, and the risk of being shot down led planes to adopt a so-called corkscrew take-off and landing where they repeatedly circled the airport to gain elevation and stay out of the reach of missiles.
Seven years later, however, a series of checkpoints along the route to the airport and a plethora of security staff, ironically, makes it the most secure in the world, the airport boss argues.
"It’s the safest airport I know because of the military forces that surround it," says Blebil, who returned to Iraq after the war and has been in his job since 2005, having previously worked in the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
"We have very strict procedures and 660 security staff," which equates to a dominant force when compared with a total of 600 other workers at the airport.
Although security has improved in Iraq in the past two years, the difficulty of squaring private foreign investment with Baghdad’s all-dominant public sector remains a headache.
"We really need to develop the investment law," says Blebil, alluding to various financial restrictions by Iraq’s government, including prohibitions on foreign companies owning land.
The disruption of a Baghdad-London service launched by national carrier Iraqi Airways, which led to the airline boss’s passport being confiscated and a chartered plane being impounded on its maiden and so-far only flight to the British capital, have not boosted credibility among investors.
It is all rather symptomatic of an industry trying to pick up the pieces after the flight embargo and several wars, says Blebil.
During most of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Saddam’s regime imposed a travel ban on Iraqis to curb capital flight, draft-dodgers and a brain drain.
With no such restrictions in place now, Blebil is upbeat.
"The country needs us, so we will make it happen somehow. We cannot wait for the French, German or American investors forever," he says.