- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

BAGHDAD — The first commercial flight into Baghdad since before the war is to arrive at roughly noon today and, it will be filled with television news crews.Air Baghdad’s maiden voyage will circle between Amman, Jordan and Baghdad this morning, carrying a dozen passengers into the capital city, which is still accessible only by arduous road trip. Three times the number are to fly out a few hours later.Maiden passengers include lots of British Broadcasting Corp. personnel, as well as some Fox News, CNN and ABC news crews.The air service has been started by Peter Henderson, a South African entrepreneur.The idea came to Mr. Henderson 3½ weeks ago, as he was riding through the vast, featureless desert between Amman and Baghdad, a journey that can take more than 14 hours, plus time spent at the border crossing. A number of travelers have been robbed on the road, which runs through desolate sand for hours.”I was sitting in the desert determined to fly back out,” Mr. Henderson, 41, said yesterday morning. “No one did that. Now I see why.”Mr. Henderson said the U.S. military red tape was arduous to untangle, but ultimately he was able to line up approval from the various military units stationed at the former Saddam International Airport.The group received clearance last week from the Regional Air Mobility Control Center, based in Doha, Qatar, which presently controls all Iraqi airspace. The final approval — a sanctions waiver from the United Nations — arrived yesterday morning. Mr. Henderson feels the certificate is ridiculous given the collapse of Saddam’s regime, but his insurance company demanded it.The venture is self-financed, and Mr. Henderson would not disclosed its budget.Air Baghdad plans three flights in the first week, at $650 a seat, one-way, and two to three flights for the next few weeks. Most of early passengers are expected to be journalists, but nongovernmental organizations, U.N. officials and businessmen are expected to snap up seats as they flood into Iraq.Before the war, Royal Air Jordanian connected the capitals with roughly eight flights a week, at about $350 round-trip.Mr. Henderson has been living for nearly a month in a 5-foot-square tent in the gardens of the Hunt Club, the former private social club that has since been taken over as the headquarters of the Iraqi National Congress. He has been coordinating the INC’s 16 computers, telephones and other high-tech communication systems.His last business was News Force, a company that supplied free-lance personnel, equipment and satellite facilities for television crews in conflict zones. He sold it to France Telecom a couple of years ago, and has used much of the profit to start Air Baghdad.

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