Travellers voice concerns over safety failings at Beirut airport

Directorate General of Civil Aviation said it was working on a 'comprehensive solution' to tackle air traffic controller shortage raised in global watchdog report

People queue to buy flight tickets at Beirut international airport. Reuters
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Passengers travelling to and from Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport in Lebanon have expressed deep concerns about safety issues in light of the deficiencies highlighted by a report conducted by major international aviation bodies.

The so-called “pre-audit” was conducted by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

This follows revelations first reported in The National related to a global safety watchdog report, which shed light on several safety deficiencies at the Beirut airport in June.

This includes a severe shortage of air traffic controller staff, which the experts said was “a serious safety issue with potential critical repercussions for aviation in Lebanon”.

A source from the Lebanese civil aviation department told The National that were 15 air traffic controllers, while the standard requirement would be 87.

This has led to very long shifts of up to 24 hours, according to the source, with air traffic controllers working five hours at a stretch without any breaks.

This is in contrast with EU recommendations, which strictly regulate the profession due to its high-stress nature.

Hussam, 34, an expatriate consultant, is among the millions of Lebanese diaspora who return once or twice a year during the holidays to be with his family.

“I was reading the article while waiting for my plane to go back to Paris”, he told The National, “this is exactly what you don't want to read before boarding”.

“This is very concerning”, he said, while unfortunately not “surprising”. Hussam said he saw the airport infrastructure deteriorating since the country entered a steep economic decline in 2019.

“If you can see it yourself as a passenger, this means that of course there are deeper and more problematic issues.”

While the findings are “worrying”, he said that it will not prevent him from travelling to see his family.

“It's a risk you have to take, as the authorities won't do anything, or they are probably going to wait for a catastrophe to do something”, he said.

The disclosure also sparked a series of reactions on social media.

“Very worrying. The Lebanese state is not only absent, it’s a danger for Lebanese”, wrote TV journalist Albert Kostanian.

“They learnt nothing from the Beirut blast”, wrote financial expert Mike Azar on X, formerly Twitter.

“Alarming but not unexpected … But what's important is that Barbie doesn't destroy the community”, wrote former Minister Adel Afiouni, referring to the ban of the Barbie movie in Lebanon.

Airport denies claims

In response to continuing discussions surrounding “safety standards” at the Beirut airport and to provide reassurance to travellers, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued a statement on Friday in Arabic.

While the statement did acknowledge the joint team's report indicating a shortage of air traffic controllers at the Beirut airport, the DGCA said that it was a “affecting most global airports” due “to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Even before the pandemic in 2018, The National had reported that the Beirut airport was operating with only fifty of the recommended air traffic controllers, employing a mere 19 controllers – far below global standards.

This situation has further deteriorated with the economic meltdown, with several employees leaving their position as their salaries in the local currency were erased by hyperinflation, according to a source from the Lebanese civil aviation department.

The DGCA statement concluded that the “claims made by certain social media platforms regarding a safety threat to the airport's air traffic are baseless”.

According to the EASA-ICAO report, however, the air traffic controller staff shortage is a “serious safety issue, which could have critical repercussions for aviation in Lebanon”.

It is of “crucial importance” for the Lebanese civil aviation authorities to enable the “recruitment and retention of appropriately qualified and experienced ATS [air traffic services] staff” as “a matter of utmost urgency”.

A letter addressed to all airlines from the DGCA, dated Friday and seen by The National, struck a different tone from the press release.

It refrained from denying the report's findings and instead emphasised that the Beirut airport is actively addressing the issue and working towards a “comprehensive solution”.

“While we acknowledged the shortage like many other countries, we want to assure you that safety remains our priority,” the DGCA wrote.

“We are in close co-ordination with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to address the ATC controllers shortage through this collaboration we are formulating a robust training and certification programme that will augment our controllers with skilled professionals in the near future”.

Ali Hamie, the Caretaker Public Works Minister, did not respond to a request for comment regarding the specifics of the training, the number of ATC positions under consideration, ICAO's role, and the status of 20 qualified air traffic controllers who successfully passed a 2018 selection exam – and were never certified for sectarian reasons.

ICAO did not respond to our request for confirmation regarding the implementation of DGCA's proposed measures.

Updated: August 22, 2023, 12:28 PM