KABUL, Afghanistan — Its pilots land in cities terrorized by the Taliban, the tarmacs within easy reach of rocket fire.
Its decrepit aircraft have crashed, been blacklisted by the American military for smuggling opium and refused entry to Europe for safety deficiencies. One plane was chased down the runway by thugs of a strongman late for the flight, furious it had left without him.
Yet the airline, Kam Air — an Afghan phenomenon through and through — is largely the only way to fly in Afghanistan. It operates 90 percent of domestic flights, stitching together a nation too big and dangerous to cross by road.
As other airlines went bankrupt, Kam Air became one of the biggest taxpayers in a country where few bother to pay taxes, making it indispensable to the government, aid groups, businesses and the nation at large.
Now the airline is struggling to stay in the air — not for lack of planes or passengers, but employees. Five of its nine aircraft sit idle.
When the Taliban stormed Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel last weekend, nine of the 22 people killed were members of Kam Air’s international staff, including pilots and crew members from Ukraine and Venezuela. Then more than 50 of the airline’s foreign workers fled the country, forsaking their high pay because it had simply become too risky to work here.
“We had 37 domestic and international flights each day; now we are canceling 20 of them every day,” said Capt. Samad Osman Samadi, general director of Kam Air. “Those of our foreign colleagues who were shocked by the attack are not able to work. They returned to their countries. We don’t know whether they will return to work or not.”
This week, men in crisp navy suits, wing pins on their lapels, unloaded seven flag-draped coffins onto the tarmac on a cold Kabul morning, accompanying colleagues for their final flight. The seven Ukrainians were going home, on a Kam Air plane, while paperwork for the two Venezuelans was still in the works.
As the coffins arrived from the morgue, one senior official with Kam Air took a sweeping look across the domestic terminal, pointing out the parked planes that now lacked pilots.
But the airport wasn’t completely without activity. Around the time the coffins were being prepared, a German chartered flight landed here, bringing 19 Afghan migrants back home. The German government considers Kabul safe enough to deport Afghan migrants who have reached Europe, returning them to the country they fled.
At Kam Air’s main office in Kabul, ticketing agents struggled to explain to travelers why they did not know when — or if — flights would resume.
Kambez Barawi, who had come to Kabul for treatment of a wound, visited the office for a second day, pleading for clarity on when he could return home to western Nimruz Province. Mr. Barawi said he was paying $ 100 a night at a Kabul hospital. Travel by road, which cuts through Taliban country, was not an option.
“Today I came to the main office to ask again, and the answer I got is, ‘We don’t know when the flight will be possible,’” Mr. Barawi, 26, said. “I am not able to travel by road because it is not safe. If it was possible, I would never pay for a plane ticket.”
Kam Air’s story is resilience in one of the most difficult aviation environments.
The airline is named for its colorful owner, Zamarai Kamgar. When not hunting in the wilds of Central Asia, he is easily reachable by friends — to help them get on any flight they want, whenever they want. His first experience with owning an airplane came when a warlord, whose troops he had supplied with food and fuel, could not pay the bill. Instead, the warlord repaid the debt by handing over a Boeing 727.
Since its founding in 2003, Kam Air has not only stayed aloft, but also brought in enough profit to land among the country’s top five taxpaying companies last year, according to its vice president, Farid Peykar.
The setbacks, though, have been big. A crash in 2005 killed 104 people on board. The airline was briefly blacklisted by the United States military, which said Kam Air’s seedy-looking planes were involved in opium smuggling.
The company has concocted creative deals, tapping into the aviation industries of struggling countries like Ukraine and Venezuela, to keep its own fleet going.
Last year, the company leased a 737 airliner, along with its 30-member crew, from Slovakia. But about three months later, the leasing company terminated the contract after a visiting delegation found safety standards in Afghanistan abysmal.
What has helped Kam Air stay alive is its foreign technical staff and its competitive salaries: While a Ukrainian aviation worker might make $ 1,000 a month at home, Kam Air pays between $ 4,000 and $ 5,000.
Vadim Rachitelny, president of the Association of Civil Aviation Employees, a Ukrainian union, worked in Afghanistan in 2015 and knew two of the hotel assault victims. He said many Ukrainian aviation workers had taken jobs overseas because of the dire situation at home. The biggest Ukrainian aviation company, AeroSvit, shut down in 2013.
“Many of these people who work abroad now lost their jobs when AeroSvit was shut down,” Mr. Rachitelny said.
In a statement on Twitter, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, said this week of the deaths, “There is no medicine for this grief.”
Hardship also shaped the story of the Venezuelan pilots. One, Adelsis Ramos, 59, had arrived in Kabul only two months ago. His wife and two sons live in Caracas.
The wife’s brother, Jorge Democrata, said, “He accepted the work because Venezuela has the worst financial crisis in the whole history of the country,” adding, “We don’t have many job opportunities.”
Neither Venezuela nor Ukraine has an embassy in Kabul. While the bodies of the Venezuelans lie at the morgue for paperwork to be completed, Ukraine sent a diplomat from neighboring Tajikistan to expedite the return of the Ukrainian victims.
Kam Air executives expressed outrage over the security breach at what was supposed to be one of Kabul’s most heavily guarded hotels, where they had rented about 50 rooms for their foreign staff.
Mr. Peykar, the vice president, said the Taliban attackers had simply driven a vehicle packed with explosives past two checkpoints, parking near a third checkpoint and then pulling out sacks of weapons and ammunition. Three other attackers, believed to have stayed several nights at the hotel, had created a diversion for them by shooting from inside.
One of the first victims was a Ukrainian pilot who specialized in flying a small, 32-passenger Saab 340, landing on bumpy tarmacs that would make many pilots cringe. He was shot while dining at the hotel restaurant. Another victim, a flight attendant, hid on her balcony for much of the night, but the freezing cold forced her back into her room, where she was killed, Mr. Peykar said.
Around the country, officials said that business and routine government work had been hurt by the grounded flights.
All flights have been canceled to Badakhshan Province, in Afghanistan’s restive northeast, where residents of at least four provinces under heavy Taliban pressure had relied on Kam Air to get to Kabul. Many delegations from the capital that had been visiting the northeast were stranded.
With the Taliban known to pull government workers from buses, the province’s deputy governor, Gul Mohammad Baidar, said that traveling by road was much too dangerous.
“If I, or the governor, or the police or intelligence chief are called to Kabul, we will not go by road — 100 percent,” he said.
Mohammed Yasin Ayubi, head of the airport in Badakhshan, described chaos there on Tuesday after the Kam Air flights were canceled.
A small military plane arrived, bringing in the bodies of soldiers killed on duty. For its return to Kabul, senior civilian and military officials, as well as wounded soldiers, brawled with one another to board.
“There was a lot of chaos, with everyone getting on the plane and saying, ‘I am going,’” Mr. Ayubi said. “The pilot said, ‘I am not taking any of you,’ and left empty.”