Original article – https://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast-52491335

The BBC has investigated how one Iranian airline – Mahan Airlines – has contributed to the spread of Covid-19 across the Middle East, violating banning decisions imposed by several countries. 

BBC Arabic analyzed flight tracking data and spoke to sources within Mahan Air to explain how this company has, for hundreds of times, been challenging government bans between late January and the end of March, by operating flights to and from Iran, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Syria. 

Mahan Air – Airbus A310

All of these countries must have given Mahan Air permission to land, and have done so in defiance of the airline ban. 

Iran suspended all flights to and from China on January 31. 

After that, several countries prevented flights from Iran in February and March, after they became the epicenter of the Corona virus epidemic in the Middle East. 

But the airline continued its flights, though. This led to criticism that it risks the health of passengers and air crews. The crew members were silenced after threatening to refer them to the judiciary, when they expressed their concerns about “spreading the virus to their loved ones and their country.” 

Mahan Airlines did not respond to a BBC request for comment. 

What is Mahan Airlines ?

Mahan Air is an Iranian airline company that is run by the private sector. 

The company says it has 55 aircraft, and annually transports nearly five million passengers to 66 destinations worldwide. 

The company has links to the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which has great influence in Iran, and is a branch of the Iranian armed forces. 

Consequently, the company had previously been subjected to American control, which ended with the imposition of sanctions, after accusing it of transporting weapons and prominent figures for the Revolutionary Guard. 

The company supports Iran’s operations in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq – countries that have strong ties with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. 

Ignore health advice 

By using flight data and talking to sources in Lebanon and Iraq, BBC Arabic was able to confirm that the first cases of Covid-19 in these two countries were for travelers on Mahan flights. 

On February 19, an Iranian student on Mahan Flight W55062 traveled from the Iranian capital, Tehran, to the city of Najaf in Iraq. 

It was registered as the first official case of Covid-19 infection on February 24 in the country. 

On February 20, a forty-one-year-old Lebanese woman returned to the Lebanese capital, Beirut, after visiting the city of Qom, on Mahan flight No. W5112. 

The next day, it was recorded as the first confirmed case of HIV in Lebanon. 

Despite these two incidents that have outraged both countries, Mahan Airlines continued its flights. 

On February 20, the Iraqi government suspended aircraft flights to and from Iran. 

But the BBC was able to reveal that at least 15 more flights took place after the ban was issued. Many of these aircraft transported visitors from Iran to the holy Iraqi cities with the approval of the Iraqi government. 

The Iraqi government stated to the BBC that the flights were return flights that had been approved by the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority, and that flights from Iraq to Iran would continue, but travelers from Iran were prevented from entering Iraq.

Flying active at the height of the epidemic 

Image caption Mahan Air and at the height of the spread of Covid 19 in China, continued its flights between Iran and Chinese cities 

The BBC learned that Mahan Airlines, at the height of the spread of Covid 19 in China, continued its flights between Iran and the four major Chinese cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. 

Iran must have given Mahan permission to breach the travel ban with China imposed by the Iranian government itself on January 31. 

Mahan Airlines published photos on Chinese social media showing that six of its flights between late January and April 20, were used for relief, and identified four of them used to evacuate Iranian citizens from China, the last of which was on February 5 / Last February. 

By further analyzing flight tracking data and reviewing it with statements of Mahan aviation officials, we can reveal that 157 flights of the company have taken off after that date, in defiance of an Iranian flight ban with China. 

The company also continued to play a major role in transporting travelers from Iran to other countries during the peak of the virus’s spread there. 

The BBC has learned that despite the ban on flights from Iran to the UAE on February 25, the airline has operated 37 other flights until the end of March. 

On March 8, Syria suspended all flights to and from Iran. But Mahan Air had carried out eight more flights after that decision went into effect. 

Mahan Airlines also flew 37 flights to Dubai, 19 flights to Turkey, and 20 trips to other destinations, including Spain, Malaysia and Thailand. 

Other airlines were flying to and from Iran at the same time. But Mahan Airlines was the only one to violate the ban in a massive way. 

Silence workers in Mahan 

Image copyright BBC Arabic Image caption The BBC has obtained a copy of a confidentiality commitment agreement distributed to Mahan Airlines employees, threatening them with a criminal trial if they publicly express their concerns.

The BBC obtained evidence that the crew members were silenced despite growing concern about the role Mahan was playing in spreading the virus. 

In late February, well-informed sources within Mahan stated that symptoms of the virus had started to appear in more than 50 of its crew members. 

The crew members turned to social media to complain that they were not given special equipment or protective clothing. 

On February 27, airline workers spoke for the first time. 

In an article published by the “East Calendar” newspaper, Mahan Air workers expressed concern that they would not be allowed unilateral isolation after their return from China and that they were forced to continue working. 

On April 18, 1,300 Mahan Airlines workers signed an open letter accusing the airline of mismanaging the crisis. 

The message, published in Avia News, also mentioned that workers ’claims for personal protective equipment recommended by the International Air Transport Association were repeatedly neglected, and that they were blamed for transmitting the virus to their loved ones and to the country. 

The BBC has obtained a copy of a confidentiality commitment agreement that has been distributed to Mahan Aviation employees, threatening them with a criminal trial if they speak out their concerns. 

The Mahan Airlines, and the countries that allowed the company’s planes to land on its soil – in violation of the ban imposed by those countries themselves – have rejected the BBC’s request for comment. 

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