The Airport is Half Full
I see the airport as a sign of Kurdistan's steady development. Flights arrive daily from Baghdad and Amman and there are less frequent flights from other international destinations, such as Stockholm, Athens, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Kurdistan's new flagship carrier, Kurdistan Airways, started operations this year and is adding more destinations regularly. The region is becoming more integrated with Europe through Austrian Airlines, which is set to be the first Western carrier operating in Iraq, flying a Vienna to Arbil route. The airport's development is sure to strengthen Arbil's links to the rest of the world and increase investment in Iraq.
The most promising sign is a booth that's been recently installed to greet visitors immediately after clearing customs. Though I've never seen it staffed, its directed to tourists and contains pamphlets in Arabic and English about all the great places to visit in Kurdistan. Perusing the guide, most of the destinations seem to be waterfalls, though there are plenty of other tourist draws. This is a drastic change from the tourism strategy for the rest of Iraq, which is centered on keeping visitors away. It wont be long before there's a Lonely Planet written for Kurdistan, and hopefully the new edition covering the whole of Iraq will follow.
The airport is also emblematic of Kurdistan's uncertain status. Since Turkey doesn't recognize the region, Kurdistan Airways can't fly through Turkish airspace. Some flights are recoded with an international partner, while other fly first to Baghdad and leave from there, skirting Turkey.
If my coworker is right and the airport does become obsolete in the long run, most of the air traffic will be going to Baghdad instead. This will mean that the security situation has improved, which will benefit Iraq and Arbil.