One man's job: getting Baghdad airport off the ground
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As of now, the airport only takes flights from the military, the UN, and one or two 15-seat propeller planes a day carrying aid workers. For others, the roads in and out of the country, as well as major routes inside, are plagued with robberies as well as violent attacks.Skip to next paragraph
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Douglas is optimistic about getting to the point where people - especially investors - can get in and out of Iraq safely; He's seen it happen before. "As soon as the airport's up and running, it's like, 'Ding!' They say it's OK and they'll come."
But inside the one terminal that is ready - the other still needs major work - Douglas stops to talk to the Iraqi vendor who took over the shattered duty-free store, giving it a face-lift and filling it with sparkling luxury products. There's an eerie feeling looking out into the waiting lounge, a lonely shop without shoppers.
Still, that's the least of Douglas's troubles. He spends much of his day on the move, trying to negotiate ways to transfer cash, people, and equipment safely. Without secure roads or a working banking system, it's difficult to move his staff around and get subcontractors paid.
This week, he's trying to bring in refueling trucks, but moving them from Britain via Kuwait presents one predicament; then there's the security risk of getting them from Kuwait to Baghdad.
"Things aren't happening in procurement, period," he complains to a handful of staff members at a meeting, as they sit on the former palace's ornate armchairs and couches. "We need to have a process that works more quickly."
Understandably, perhaps, Douglas isn't a man who likes wasting time. As he pulls up one morning on the airport outskirts, he again skirts the line of cars waiting to go through a checkpoint run by a private security firm. But he stops for a more important checkpoint about 100 feet ahead, run by the US Army.
With his trim physique, short-cropped hair, and arm tattoo, Douglas is easily taken for a soldier. Yet, he says, his biggest security concern is getting hit by friendly fire.
Douglas's dark hair means it's also not impossible for him to pass as an Iraqi. In one of his closest calls, an Apache helicopter hovered over him and his Gurkha employee for 10 minutes as they tried to hook up a satellite dish on a balcony of the Sheraton Hotel just after the war; the pilots were trying to decide if Douglas was rigging up an explosion. Recent incidents, like the mistaken killing of eight Iraqi policemen by US soldiers September in Fallujah, show that a simple communications lapse can turn into a disaster. In August, two civilian contractors were killed in attacks by Iraqis.
It can be stressful - but then, Douglas never was going to be a desk man. He grew up in Zambia, and was told he took after his great-grandfather, a British soldier who served in World War I and throughout the British Empire. But crisis-hopping has taken a toll. His first wife couldn't stand the fact that he kept skipping town for a little war on 12 hours' notice.
"I've had 101 broken romances since then," he says. But now he is engaged: He says he has found someone who understands. He and his fiancée, who works at SkyLink's offices in Kuwait, hope to be married by Christmas.
In the meantime, Douglas works 18-hour days, when he counts the two to three hours of conference calls he sits in on each night. He doesn't even make time to hang out in what the other guys have dubbed "The Mortar Bar" at the top of the airport control tower.
"I have days when I think, 'it's too much, man.' I've kind of used up my nine lives," he says. "I don't look for it. It just comes and finds me."
Then he thinks again. "It is like an adventure. There's an adrenaline rush," he says, looking over his shoulder before speeding off down another dicey road. "It's very difficult when you've been doing this to go and do something normal."
• The aviation company is based in Washington, D.C.
• The firm was awarded $2.5 million initially to bring airports in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul back online, and has been approved for another $15 million. It may also be tapped to work on other airfields in Iraq.
• SkyLink has operated in 50 countries. It has a staff of 16 in Baghdad.
Source: USAID, SkyLink
• Second of three parts. Tomorrow: Ensuring that Iraqis have clean water.