Beirut airport: Air-traffic controllers suspend strike amid staff shortage negotiations

Air traffic controllers had planned to work reduced shifts, partially closing Lebanon's only international airport, in protest

A Lebanese Middle East Airlines (MEA) plane is parked at the tarmac of Beirut international airport, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 19, 2021. Reuters
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Lebanese air-traffic controllers are suspending strike action with days to go before stopping work, following negotiations with the Director General of Civil Aviation and the Department of Air Navigation.

The talks aimed to address the critical issue of severe staffing shortage, as outlined in a press release on Tuesday.

“Every effort will be made to continue ensuring air navigation services at the airport around the clock in a safe and efficient manner”, the air-traffic controllers said in their statement.

Air-traffic controllers had previously warned they'd work reduced shifts, from 7am to 8pm starting on September 5, in response to findings from inspections by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) at Rafik Hariri International Airport, Lebanon's sole international airport.

The findings, revealed by The National on August 17, raised alarming concerns about the insufficient number of air-traffic controller staff, a “serious safety issue, which could have critical repercussions for aviation in Lebanon.”

A source from the Lebanese Civil Aviation Department told The National that air-traffic controllers in Lebanon are “drained and pushed to their limit.”

They are operating with just 13 staff members instead of the required 87, leading to strenuous 24-hour shifts and a total of 300 working hours each month.

Following the negotiations with their management, the air-traffic controllers announced their agreement on a “road map” to address the staffing crisis.

This includes ongoing training for existing controllers, because some of them, especially in lower positions or working as assistants, have been operating without proper certification for decades.

The press release also noted plans for the issuance of a recruitment decree for air-traffic controllers who passed the 2018 exams.

This promotion of 20 successful candidates was never approved by the presidency due to concerns about creating a sectarian imbalance in the country.

The decree's approval is now scheduled “for the first Cabinet session by the Minister of Public Works and Transport”.

The controllers and management have also agreed to employ the services of international licensed controllers on a “temporary basis” while local controllers undergo training.

The recent revelations by The National prompted the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to send a letter to all airlines, affirming their collaboration with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to address the shortage of air-traffic controllers.

The letter outlined plans for a “robust training and certification programme that will augment our controllers with skilled professionals in the near future”.

Neglected air safety

Lebanon's public sector and state institutions have been reeling from a severe economic crisis that emerged in late 2019 due to decades of corruption and mismanagement.

But so far, the means of funding for hiring international air-traffic controllers, or an outline of the training programme, have not been specified.

Caretaker Minister of Public Works Ali Hamieh did not answer our request for comment regarding the timeline for implementing the roadmap or the number of air-traffic controllers who will benefit.

This is not the first time that air-traffic controllers have raised their voices.

Over the years, they say they have consistently expressed their concerns and demands for employment and proper training to successive ministers.

The recent safety report has publicised this issue and sparked concerns among travelers and officials.

Opposition MP Waddah Sadek said he is “working on preparing a comprehensive file” about the airport “covering neglect, corruption, bribes, mismanagement, and the absence of air-traffic controllers”, he wrote on Wednesday on X, formerly Twitter.

Beirut airport has faced power cuts and equipment shortages during the bustling summer season. More than 4 million travellers have flown into Lebanon since the beginning of the year.

Updated: August 30, 2023, 2:19 PM