BASRA, Iraq -- Basra International Airport hosted its first civilian flight since the war against Iraq began, marking the beginning of a new era for the Basra community, May 2.
Sir Richard Branson, chief executive officer of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, arrived on the hallmark flight from London's Heathrow International Airport, bearing 60 tons of medical supplies, blankets and other humanitarian assistance items.
British Royal Engineers and airmen who labored for three weeks to prepare the airport for operation greeted Branson as he stepped off the plane.
"We've been working hard to get the air field back and running," said Squadron Leader James McKillop of the British Royal Air Force. "Today is the culmination of that work. It is just brilliant; it shows what we're able to do in a short time."
Reopening the airport was an important step for many British service members in Basra preparing to return to the United Kingdom soon.
"[The reopening] is definitely good for the Iraqis, and it's good for us because it's another point for us to fly home from," said Cpl. Darren Munro, a nuclear, biological and chemical specialist from the British Royal Air Force.
British officials are encouraging humanitarian assistance groups to use the airport to import goods that will help Iraqis recover from decades of hardship.
"All the aid that [Virgin] Atlantic is bringing here is awesome," said former Marine Drew Carey, host of The Drew Carey Show, who accompanied Branson on the flight. "Corporations can get their act together quicker than governments because they don't have to go through all the red tape."
In addition to humanitarian aid, the reopening of the airport put some Iraqis back to work. Kasim Jbara, an Iraqi fire alarm engineer has worked at Basra International Airport since 1986, but has been unable to work since fighting broke out in the region.
"This is something that is not easy to describe - it is very great," Jbara said. "I hope it is the beginning of a bright future."