TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - IranAir took delivery of four European turboprop aircraft on Tuesday, as it extended the renewal of its aging fleet under an international sanctions-lifting deal to regional cities.
The first of 20 ATR 72-600s ordered by IranAir were handed over at Franco-Italian planemaker ATR's Toulouse headquarters and are scheduled to arrive in Tehran on Wednesday.
The deliveries will bring to seven the number of new Western aircraft delivered to Iran since trade reopened under a deal between Tehran and major powers to ease sanctions in exchange for restrictions on Iran's nuclear research activities.
IranAir is mostly rebuilding its fleet with deals to buy a total of 180 Airbus and Boeing passenger jets, but the arrival of ATR 70-seat planes is aimed at underserved local economies.
IranAir aims to cover a populous arc in Iran's northwest and northeast and may eventually base some of the ATR planes in the Caspian city of Rasht, Chairman Farhad Parvaresh told Reuters.
A similar model could ultimately be established in Bandar Abbas in the south.
"This is the plan, a commercial plan, but of course it might change," Parvaresh said, speaking on board the first aircraft.
Currently, 90 percent of IranAir's domestic traffic revolves around 10-12 airports, but a lower tier of destinations fail to met their potential due to a lack of small planes.
"We hope very much that with this type of aircraft we can connect the small cities to the mega cities," Parvaresh said.
"As the number of aircraft increases, we will increase this hub-and-spoke pattern inside the country with the small airports," he added.
"But in addition to domestic routes we can also use them in the future to connect ... Iran's border cities to the border cities of our neighbours, for which it is not always economical to use bigger aircraft."
Such routes might include Kish to Dubai, Lar to Qatar's capital Doha or traffic between Tabriz in Iran's Azerbaijan region and the Azeri capital Baku.
Each ATR 72-600 is worth $26.8 million at list prices but planes typically trade at a discount. IranAir plans to take the remaining 16 by end-2018, including another five this year.
It has so far received three Airbus jets and will get another by end-year. The first Boeing is due around May 2018.
Despite the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions, Iran continues to faces hurdles in financing long-term purchases because banks are nervous of infringing separate U.S. sanctions. For now, officials say it is paying for aircraft in cash but that this money will serve as deposits for later deliveries.
"Financing is going ahead but it is not finalised yet," Parvaresh said.
The deal between IranAir and ATR - co-owned by Airbus (AIR.PA) and Italy's Leonardo LDOF.PA - includes a training program for Iranian pilots and engineers.
Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Louise Heavens