After landing in Dubai around 10pm, I had 6 hours before my connection to Kabul. It was too early for Dnata to check me in and I had no lounge access so I set out looking for a bench where I could rest.
There were none—each section of seating had armrests for each seat. Wi-fi wasn’t working either, so I spent the time reading a book and then trying to sleep sitting up. Indeed, this was not a fun layover. Thankfully I now have an American Express Platinum card that will give me access to the Marhaba lounge if I ever find myself in a similar situation in the future at Dubai.
Flights times were all horrible—Safi, Ariana, and flydubai all leave in the early morning. I chose Ariana Afghan Airways because it was the cheapest ticket and because of the carrier’s storied history.
Ariana is Afghanistan’s oldest airlines, founded in 1955 with a fleet of three DC-3 aircraft. Pan Am purchased a 49% stake in the company in 1957 and by 1960 the carrier’s route map had grown to include a “Marco Polo” route from Kabul–Kandahar–Tehran–Damascus–Beirut–Ankara–Prague–Frankfurt operated by a DC-4.
The airline performed well through the late 1970s, acquiring a number of Boeing and Douglas widebody aircraft, before the Soviet occupation led to the takeover of Ariana by Bakhtar and the exchange of U.S.-made aircraft for Soviet TU-154s. In 1988, the carrier returned to the Ariana name.
Civil war ravaged Afghanistan and the Taliban took control in 1996, also taking control of Arianna Afghan. UN Sanctions forced Ariana to halt overseas operations and the carrier found itself operating a few aged Soviet aircraft within Afghanistan and to Dubai and Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Osama Bin Laden effectively commandeered Ariana to serve his purposes:
With the Taliban’s blessing, Bin Laden effectively had hijacked Ariana, the national civilian airline of Afghanistan. For four years, according to former U.S. aides and exiled Afghan officials, Ariana’s passenger and charter flights ferried Islamic militants, arms, cash and opium through the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. Members of Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network were provided false Ariana identification that gave them free run of airports in the Middle East.
As the U.S.-led Afghan war began in late 2001, Ariana’s operations were suspended, albeit only briefly. With the Taliban quickly expelled from Kabul and a generous gift of three A300s from the Indian government, Ariana began flying again in December 2001.
The carrier resumed flights to Frankfurt but in March 2006 the EU banned Ariana from flying into EU airspace over safety concerns and that ban continues today.
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Booking a ticket was not an easy task—although Ariana has a website in which you make reservations, you cannot ticket the reservations online: that requires a visit or telephone call to an authorized travel agent. The closest agent to me in Philadelphia was in Manhattan and after setting up the reservation online (the price for a one-way ticket was about $119) I called to ticket it. I mentioned to the agent that I would be in New York the next day and he suggested that rather than ticket it over the phone, I just stop by the office the next afternoon. I agreed.
The following day I located the office between 27th and 28th Streets (MPR Travel, +1 (212) 684 2510, email@example.com) and went upstairs to find a small but traditional travel agency, specializing in travel to Pakistan. I identified myself to a man sitting at his desk and the gentleman acknowledged that he had spoken with me on the phone the previous day.
Sadly for me, he now quoted a ticket price of about $150 plus a ticketing fee of $25. I was not happy and pulled out my laptop to check the price online. Sure enough, it had gone up. Ariana does not have the sort of dynamic pricing that U.S. airlines have—the price is the same for travel tomorrow or travel six months from now. It seems that the carrier had raised prices across the board overnight and the agent said there was no way to honor the original price.
With no apparent recourse, I accepted the new price and my electronic ticket issued…I was hoping it would have been a paper ticket.
Now back to Dubai. Ariana flies out of Dubai’s Terminal 2, a decrepit terminal that houses low-cost carriers and other small airlines like Iran’s Kish Air. Other than a small food court, the terminal offers little in terms of comfort. Although wi-fi signs are posted throughout the terminal, the signal is too weak to establish a connection. A 10-minute bus ride from Terminal 1 and another security check was necessary to reach the terminal.
Finally, boarding started and about 30 people lined up to board. Strikingly, I was the only fair skinned person on the aircraft and I only noticed one women and one child onboard—so me, a women, a child, and 27 Afghan men.
A bus took us out to the plane, a 737-400 aircraft with an “Ariana Afghan Airlines” sticker on the fuselage. I snapped a blurry picture of the aircraft but was instructed to put my camera away.
Inside were eight business class seats that hearkened back to the early 1990’s. Business class was about $800 one-way and had been sold out when I bought my ticket. I wondered where these men were getting their money to afford it, considering per capita income in Afghanistan is $600/year.
It didn’t really matter—the plane was so lightly filled everyone had their own row if they so chose. And I was thankful for that, for I’ve never been on airplane with such poor legroom!
If I had to guess seat pitch, I would say 27″. I could not sit in a normal position—my knees were up against the seat in front.
We took off a bit late after a manual safety demonstration in Pashto and English. I was hungry by this time, but a half hour passed with no sign of the FAs so I figured there would be no service on this three-hour flight.
Another half hour passed and the FAs suddenly appeared with a cart—there would be a meal service after all. Everyone received the same thing: a bottle of water, a small can of Coca Cola, and a cup of weak tea to drink and a tray featuring eggs with potatoes and sausage, yogurt, a white bread roll, and chocolate muffin for breakfast.
Sadly, the breakfast was cold. One hour in the oven must not have been enough…
I was able to sleep for about an hour and a half before awakening to the sun streaming through the cabin. I thought it was time to land but we continued to fly over mountainous regions of Afghanistan, maintaining our altitude.
This went on for another hour before we finally landed in Kabul 45 minutes late. No explanation was given for the delay.
Interestingly, the aircraft was piloted by an American captain who thanked everyone for flying in a Midwest accent.
Landing in Kabul was an airliner lover’s mecca.
Once on the ground, we were bussed to the terminal where I was stamped into the country then had to acquire my migration card at a small unmarked desk in the baggage claim room before proceeding out to the brisk winter morning.
Read more of my Saudi Arabia + Afghanistan Trip Report–
Introduction: A Journey to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan
How to Obtain a Saudi Arabian Transit Visa
New York JFK to Jeddah in Saudia Economy Class
Review: Park Hyatt Jeddah
Pictures from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Jeddah to Dubai in Saudia Economy Class
Dubai to Kabul on Ariana Afghan Airlines
Arrival in Afghanistan
The Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan
My Hotel, er Compound, in Kabul, Afghanistan
Kabul – TV Tower Hill and Darul Aman Palace
Kabul – National Museum of Afghanistan
Kabul – Gardens of Babur and Kart-e Sakhi Mosque
Kabul – The Green Zone and British Cemetery
Kabul International Airport and Departing Afghanistan
The Afghanistan Dilemma
Kabul to Dubai on flydubai
Dubai to New York via Jeddah in Saudia Economy Class