Some Notes on Air Transport in Mongolia


Oliver Corff

Due to her unique geography and vast territory Mongolia's need for domestic air transport is certainly obvious. Mongolia operates a small fleet but does not have the industrial infrastructure to maintain her own aircraft industry. Mongolia used to rely on the historical cooperation with the former Soviet Union for her domestic and international fleet.

Civilian air services are provided by MIAT (Mongol Irgenii Agaaryn Teewer = Mongolian Civilian Air Transport; NOT *Mongolian International Air Transport though this sounds plausible), the state-owned domestic and international carrier of Mongolia. Being established in 1956 with support by Aeroflot, the MIAT fleet comprises (according to a recent Reuter's dispatch [ 1 ])

The picture The MIAT Domestic Fleet shows most of the above-mentioned aircraft parked on the tarmac of Buyant Uxaa, still with the old painting [ 2 ]. Buyant Uxaa is the name of the area where the international airport of Ulaanbaatar is located.

The Boeing 727-200s are a donation by the government of the Republic of Korea (1992/1993). The painting of MIAT's aircraft was changed recently from red as basic colour to blue. In 1991, negotiations took place between Mongolia and China on the purchase of five "Yu-12" planes, an American-designed plane produced in China [ 3 ]. There are more aircraft and helicopters which are controlled by the military. Walker's article Aeromedical Services in Reformed Mongolia reveals more details on this aspect.

Operating from Ulaanbaatar Buyant Uxaa, numerous domestic locations are being served as well as the international destinations Beijing (China), Hohhot (Southern Mongolia), Irkutsk and Moscow Sheremetyevo (both Russia) and Sofia (Bulgaria). Mongolia has a total of 81 airports of which 31 are labelled as "usable" [ 4 ]. Only 11 airports have permanent-surface runways. Most "airports" are actually airfields without proper runway in the grasslands. Good weather provided these are certainly acceptable for propeller-driven planes.

Since there are only two long-haul airliners each of the international destinations gets only served about once or twice a week. The actual frequence of flights from and to Ulaanbaatar is higher since the national carriers of China and Russia maintain scheduled flights to Ulaanbaatar. In summer, there are often additional charter links to Japan, and in April 1996 the airline link between Seoul, Korea, and Ulaanbaatar was opened.

The overall economic situation of Mongolia leads to critical problems in air transport. Flights are affected by fuel shortages effectively closing down domestic air links for weeks as it has been happening time and again during the last years. Far more dangerous are the risks caused by the lack of spare parts and proper maintenance. Though the aircraft operate within their allowed working life time there are tragic crashes like the disaster of September 21, 1995, when an Antonov An-24 crashed near Moron, leaving over 40 passengers dead and only one alive [ 5 ]. The crashed plane is said to be 20 years old, having done 22,000 working hours of a working life of 30,000 hours.

One probable reason for the accident is the significant number of unregistered passengers (known as "rabbits") bribing their way on board the aircraft. In this case, the wreckage and remains were strewn widely across the densely wooded slope of a mountain. The destruction and mingling of human remains meant that a conclusive death count may never be known. A similar crash had also happened in April 1993, leaving all 36 passengers dead.

There have been repeated public appeals by MIAT for more financial support [ 6 ] but these could not prevent the tragic crashes. Besides the necessary modernization of the fleet, negociations between Mongolian, German (Philipp Holzmann) and English (Wimpey Asphalt, Ltd.) companies about the modernization of the airport in Ulaanbaatar took place in 1994 [ 7 ]. The estimated investment was planned at US$ 30 mio. but only in fall 1995 the project left the blueprint stage.


[ 1 ] Reuter's Information Services, April 5, 1995

[ 2 ] Picture taken in November 1992 by O. Corff.

[ 3 ] Mongol Messenger, December 17-23, 1991, p. 4

[ 4 ] CIA World Fact Book, 1990 - 1994

[ 5 ] ITAR-TASS news agency, September 22, 1995, BBC Monitoring Service, September 23, 1995, both via Reuter's Information Services, September 24, 1995 and later

[ 6 ] Mongol Messenger, April 14, 1995

[ 7 ] Mongol Messenger, May 24, 1994