Flights to Mountainous Badakhshan in Tajikistan – current difficulties

Back in the 1980s, up to 14 (!) flights per day were operated along the Dushanbe – Khorog air route in Tajikistan. Airplanes also flew to Khorog from Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The cost of a ticket for the Dushanbe – Khorog flight was 16 soviet rubles, the flight duration was about 90 minutes.

An-28 and Yak-40 aircraft flew in Mountainous Badakhshan. This air route was considered (and today is considered) as one of the most difficult and dangerous for pilots, because it runs between mountain ranges, and you need to fly the plane in places along a rather narrow corridor between them. Specialists in the aviation industry say that in Soviet times, Tajikistan employed some of the best pilots who had experience flying in difficult conditions in the highlands.

By the way, in 1989, the Tajik Civil Aviation Authority ranked first in the Soviet Aeroflot in terms of the efficiency of aircraft use. In that year, the republic’s airports served more than two million passengers.

Air traffic with Mountainous Badakhshan was first interrupted at the end of August 1993, after the Yak-40 plane crashed in Khorog, 82 people were killed. Until the end of the civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1997), airplanes did not fly to the Pamirs. Then the air service was restored, but for technical reasons it was repeatedly interrupted. In addition, the frequency of flights decreased significantly: at best, the planes flew once a day, and flights were often canceled for one reason or another.

Since 2017, the state airline named Tajik Air, which operated Dushanbe – Khorog flights on its AN-28 plane, stopped these flights to Mountainous Badakhshan due to financial and technical difficulties. The private Tajik airline, Somon Air, does not have suitable aircraft for this air route.

Pactec International is a NGO running by the U.S. and it operates in five countries, namely Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Laos, Senegal and Tajikistan. Their planes fly, as a rule, into remote mountainous areas.

The organization appeared in Tajikistan four years ago. Pactec International entered into an agreement on joint work with the Republican Aero Club, which is a unit of the Public Organization for the Defense of Tajikistan (formerly DOSAAF) under the Tajik Ministry of Defense, and operated flights to Khorog from a military airfield in Fakhrabad.

The company carried out its flights on small-sized aircraft, in which only six passengers are accommodated. Travel time was 90 minutes, the cost of the flight was TJS 1,100 (almost US $ 110) one way, for children under two years of age, the flight was free.

However, since 2018 – from the moment Pactec International started its flights directly – only 35 flights have been completed. In early July 2019, the Dushanbe International Airport demanded from the organization to pay US $ 101 for each landing at the Khorog airport. Pactec International considered these fees too high and stopped flying.

Yodgor Fayzov, Chairperson of Mountainous Badakhshan, had to intervene. With a request to cancel the fees, he turned to the Tajik Government. They agreed with his arguments, the fees were canceled, and the flights resumed. But not for long: now the State Civil Aviation Agency, Tajikistan, has become a complaint to the work of Pactec International. And the organization suspended work again. Four weeks ago, the agency requested the company a package of necessary documents, Pactec International sent everything they asked for, but did not receive permission. In their response, the agency indicated that there were not enough documents.

To solve the issue with the flights for Pactec International, the Chairperson of Mountainous Badakhshan sent a letter about a week ago addressed to the President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon. Now, Pactec International relies on him only. Makhmadzhon Rakhimov, Chief Engineer, Tajik Flying Club, said that Pactec International appeared in the country at the request from Tajikistan.

– In 2000, the President of Tajikistan ordered – then DOSAAF – to develop small aircraft in order to connect remote mountain areas with the center of the country. We suffered for a long time, ran, looked for opportunities to establish a message, but we had problems with airplanes, then with aviation kerosene. As a result, four years ago we found Pactec International, invited them to Tajikistan, agreed, received all the necessary documents, brought the plane and started flying but the flights did not last long, according to Mr. Rakhimov.

The engineer explains that the Pactec International aircraft complies with all ICAO parameters, has a valid certificate of airworthiness and a certificate for the transport of civilian passengers, and pilots also have the necessary documents.

– We planned to fly to all hard-to-reach regions of Tajikistan. In total, there are seven airdromes at the disposal of our Tajik Flying Club. The management of Pactec International promised that if flights are in demand, it will allocate an airplane for 12 passengers. Flights are more than in demand among people, they are not confused by the price, they offer more. But they don’t let us working,” Mr. Rakhimov explains.

According to the engineer, before the ban, pilots made three flights a week, passengers took a turn for the flight a month in advance, the main contingent included elderly and sick people who could not bear the difficult road by car.

– People with oncological diseases in the last stages – they will not take the road by car. Or quite elderly people who urgently need to get to Khorog or, conversely, to Dushanbe, pregnant women or women with small children — these were our passengers. Healthy people can also be reached by car, but there are those who physically cannot,” Mr. Rakhimov told.

By the way, special crews from Novosibirsk and Moscow, which belong to the FSB border guard service of Russia, operate their flights every fall and spring on AN-26 aircraft to Khorog, as well as to the most remote, high-mountainous town located in Mountainous Badakhshan, Murghab (316 km from Khorog).

But they transport exclusively Tajik border guards who serve at the remote outposts of the Tajik-Afghan and Tajik-Chinese sections of the state border passing through the territory of Mountainous Badakhshan (an agreement on cooperation on state border issues has been concluded between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Tajikistan). For all the time of independence of Tajikistan, the pilots of the FSB of Russia were the only ones to land aircraft in Murghab, which is located at an altitude of 3,657 meters above sea level and was considered the highest mountain settlement in the former USSR.

The Aga Khan Foundation is another organization that also operates its business flights to Mountainous Badakhshan. It owns one helicopter, which is officially used for transporting to employees of inaccessible areas of the region numerous Aga Khan Development Projects (AKDP) projects, as well as employees of partner organizations. Flights are made three times a week, 10 people are placed in a helicopter. But, in addition to its employees, the fund’s helicopter is also forced to transport sick people.

– You have no idea what queues are being built for our flights. The list of comers is huge. We work with volunteer doctors who examine each passenger separately: if there really is an urgent need to use the air route, then we record it on board. We cannot transport everyone – only the most difficult patients,” an employee of this organization tells, who asked not to be named.

According to her, due to the large number of people who need a flight, sometimes AKDP employees have to give up their seats in the helicopter to the sick but they themselves travel by car. The organization does not take money for transporting patients.

– Sometimes you have to take very heavy passengers on board who, for example, urgently need a surgical operation in Dushanbe. We take them at our own peril and risk, because our helicopter is not medical, and in which case we will bear all responsibility for a sick person. In addition, delegations of the government of the country often use the fund’s helicopter. Government structures are considered our partners, and we are forced to transport them,” the Aga Khan Foundation said.

In addition to ordinary residents of Tajikistan, guests of Tajikistan are in dire need of air service between the Pamir and the central regions. Every year, tourists come to Mountainous Badakhshan, they overcome mountain routes of the highest complexity, during which tragic force majeure can happen. But Tajik rescuers and travel companies also have no helicopters for such cases.

The issue of resuming regular domestic passenger flights en route Dushanbe – Mountainous Badakhshan is vital not only for the residents of the Pamirs, the humanitarian component is only one side of the issue. The central government should be interested in the speedy restoration of air services with this region.

The lack of such services reduces the opportunities to develop Mountainous Badakhshan, including its tourism sector. And while Tajik Air, which has the only An-28 aircraft suitable for flights to the Pamirs, is in a financial crisis and is trying to resume flights after seven months of inactivity, it remains only to wonder why the country’s aviation authorities do not allow those who is ready to work on it.

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