Beirut airport: Safety fears flagged in global watchdog report

Concerns relating to air-traffic control must be addressed with utmost urgency, report says

Travelers check the flight schedule screens for delays or cancellations, at the departure terminal of Rafik Hariri international airport in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on November 21, 2015. Russia has bombed the Islamic State group in the heaviest strikes in eastern Syria since the war began, as Moscow's military manoeuvres in the Mediterranean forced Lebanon to reroute flights. AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)
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An inspection of Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport has shed light on inadequate safety measures that require urgent action.

The report, seen by The National, highlights inadequacies in air navigation services (ANS) that must be addressed with the “utmost urgency”. These include air-traffic control, communication, navigation, surveillance and meteorological services.

The report, a pre-audit carried out by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), identified the concerns on a support mission in Lebanon in June, conducted in preparation for the Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP).

The purpose of the visit was to offer guidance in preparation for the coming audit, scheduled for next year, according to an informed source, in a bid to pinpoint potential areas of weakness that would need rectified.

When controllers are overloaded with work, there is a higher risk of errors, which could have catastrophic consequences

ICAO, the global safety watchdog, conducts regular audits on its member states to assess their capability in maintaining effective safety oversight systems.

Lebanon is a signatory to the Chicago Convention and is obligated to comply with prescribed ICAO standards and recommended practices.

Lebanon's initial audit took place in 2008, followed by four missions, the most recent in 2017. Currently, Lebanon holds an overall score of 58.5, while the global average is 69.8.

Red flag

In the event of an immediate safety concern identified during an audit, ICAO can flag a country over breach of international aviation regulations. A red flag would appear alongside the results of flight safety audits, a category that includes Bhutan, Russia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

While there is no legal obligation associated with these red flags, they serve to inform other nations, with each of them independently deciding on how to use the information, including whether or not to suspend flights.

The report highlighted various “systemic deficiencies” related to ANS, largely referring to air-traffic control (ATC). During a commercial flight, an air-traffic controller guides the plane from taxiing to take-off and landing, ensuring safe spacing and efficient routes by providing instructions to the aircraft.

According to the report, “ATC staff shortage is a serious safety issue, which could have critical repercussions for aviation in Lebanon”.

“When controllers are overloaded with work, there is a higher risk of errors, which could have catastrophic consequences,” an aviation expert who requested to remain anonymous told The National.

The report stressed it was of “crucial importance” for the Lebanese civil aviation authorities to enable the “recruitment and retention of appropriately qualified and experienced ATS staff” as “a matter of utmost urgency”.

Another significant concern related to the absence of procedures to ensure an up-to-date obstacle registry and to verify the functionality of navigation aids.

“Lebanon shall ensure that identified safety issues are resolved in a timely manner," the report said.

The aviation expert, who assessed the report's findings independently, said: “International regulations require procedures to maintain updated knowledge of existing obstacles around airports. This includes any new constructions such as towers or wind turbines in order to prevent potential collisions.

“Verification of navigation aids, which includes, for instance, ground lighting, falls under the responsibility of the aerodrome. These tools are essential to assist pilots in safe navigation.”

The report emphasised a lack of separation between the regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGAC) and ANS service providers, characterised by the absence of proper procedures, regulations and training.

“Best practices strongly recommend a clear separation between the provision of air-traffic services and the regulatory function that oversees it to avoid any conflict of interests,” said the aviation expert.

A potential solution could involve the airport running for limited hours to address the resource shortage, the expert said. It currently operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“The wording is pressing and the recommendations should be taken very seriously by the Lebanese authorities,” the expert said.

Air-traffic controllers 'pushed to limits'

The lack of air-traffic controllers has long been an issue, but has intensified as the country grapples with a severe economic crisis causing the national currency to lose 97 per cent of its value and pushing 80 per cent of the population below the poverty line.

“There are currently only 15 certified air controllers, whereas the standard requirement would be 87," said a source from the Lebanese civil aviation department who requested to stay anonymous.

“Air-traffic controllers have consistently faced a shortage of staff but due to the crisis, which initially resulted in major salary cuts, a number of employees made the decision to leave the country.”

This has led to very long shifts, sometimes reaching 24 hours, with air-traffic controller working five hours at a stretch without any breaks and hitting 72 to 96 hours per week, the source said.

As per EU advice, controllers are recommended to work four eight-hour shifts followed by two rest days. During their shifts, controllers should work for one and a half hours, followed by a half-hour break.

The source said each shift should have at least four controllers and a supervisor. Yet, due to the drastic staffing shortage at the Beirut airport, there is currently only one controller active with the support of an assistant, while their colleague rests.

Controllers bear an immense burden of responsibility, the source said.

“The job is inherently stressful but Lebanon has taken it to an entirely new level. Air-traffic controllers are drained and pushed to their limit,” the source said.

Despite the staff numbers declining and existing employees getting older, with an average age of 45, local replacements have not been recruited, while hiring from abroad would be very costly.

The source also highlighted the deficiency in training for those in the lower tiers of the hierarchy, especially those working on the ground or as assistants.

“Out of the 20, none of them hold the necessary certification to execute their duties. Their training would need at least three to four years, provided we had the training centre,” they said.

"Air-traffic controllers have tried over the years to demand employment and training with all successive ministers to avoid this situation, in vain".

During a recent session with the Public Works Committee, Ali Hamie, the Caretaker Public Works Minister, said they considered bringing in air-traffic controllers from the ICAO to tackle the shortage of staff, as reported by opposition MP Ibrahim Mneimneh.

Mr Hamie did not respond to a request for comment on why the 20 qualified air-traffic controllers who successfully passed the 2018 exam were not being considered for those positions.

It was reported at the time that the batch was never approved by the presidency due to concerns about creating a sectarian imbalance in the country, as most of the successful candidates were Muslim.

Updated: August 17, 2023, 5:52 AM