While some sky-high hurdles remain, it may not be long before commercial flights turn Bosnia's "no fly" zone into friendly skies.
Later this month the white-and-blue fleur-de-lis insignia planes of Air Bosna could be navigating skies where, as recently as last fall, NATO jets battled Serb antiaircraft guns.
Air Bosna plans to launch a small fleet of passenger and cargo planes beginning later this month. If it succeeds, it will not only usher in sorely needed commercial air-transport service to Bosnia, but also uplift the mood of a population hungry for postwar normalcy.
"We have received great interest from people, in spite of the fact that the Sarajevo airport is still closed to civilian traffic," says Farida Bugunic, who manages Air Bosna's Sarajevo office. "We do hope in May Air Bosna will be operating."
Rory O'Sullivan, chief of the World Bank's mission to Bosnia, says commercial air service to Sarajevo could speed the reconstruction of Bosnia's economy. Many foreign companies do not do business in Bosnia because the airport is not open to commercial flights.
Currently, the only way to fly into Bosnia is on one of NATO's C-130 cargo planes. NATO staff, who determine if the skies are safe to fly on a last-minute basis, have dubbed the service "Maybe Airlines." Seats are limited to those with NATO accreditation, mostly military personnel, humanitarian-aid workers, diplomats, and journalists.
According to NATO, "Maybe Airlines" will not be getting competition from Air Bosna before this summer. Col. Steven Bryan, chief of air operations in Bosnia for NATO's Implementation Force (IFOR), says, "We hope very soon to open the Sarajevo and Banja Luka airports to passenger service but continue to encounter hurdles."
By hurdles, Colonel Bryan refers to recent incidents of ground fire around the Sarajevo airport and the continued lack of cooperation in storing antiaircraft weapons. To date, IFOR cannot certify that all the parties have complied. "Just two days ago, we found a cache of 120 SA-7 hand-held infrared missiles in a site where they were not supposed to be in Republic Srpska [Bosnian Serb] territory," he said last week.
The three former combatants - Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, and the largely Muslim Bosnian government - don't have long to comply. On May 13, a delegation from the International Civil Aviation Organization will arrive to conduct a safety inspection of the Sarajevo airport. Its report, which should be published a week later, will determine whether the Sarajevo airport will open to civilian aircraft.
Another hurdle for commercial aviation is the condition of the airport itself. It is sorely in need of repairs - $25 million worth, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which plans a three-year rehabilitation project. The UN's top civilian official in Bosnia, Carl Bildt, has so far managed to garner only half of that amount.
WHEN IFOR does give the green light to open Sarajevo's airport to civilian flights, Air Bosna plans to offer daily service to Zagreb, Croatia, and Ljubljana, Slovenia, where Air Bosna's fleet is based. Air Bosna also plans twice-weekly passenger and cargo flights to Frankfurt, Germany; Vienna; and Istanbul.
The price of tickets will be out of reach for the average Bosnian. A round-trip flight from Sarajevo to Zagreb will cost business-class passengers $434 and economy-class travelers $326. While passengers in Bosnia will have to pay for tickets in cash, international passengers will be able to book flights through Europe's Amadeus reservation system.
Air Bosna was formed in 1994 as a joint venture. Fifty-one percent is held by the Bosnian government and 49 percent by one of Bosnia's largest companies, the state-held engineering firm Energoinvest Corporation.
Its fleet currently includes a Cessna 550, a 105-seat DC-9, a 20-seat Spanish KAZA-212, and two cargo planes.