Lebanese MP ramps up pressure to drive reforms at Beirut airport amid safety concerns

A pre-audit has raised alarming concerns about the insufficient number of air-traffic controller staff

A welcoming billboard is seen along the airport road in Lebanon's capital Beirut. AFP
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A Lebanese MP is following up on the Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport safety scandal, hoping to increase pressure to enact crucial reforms at the troubled airport.

The move comes after The National disclosed the findings of a pre-audit report that revealed critical safety deficiencies at the airport requiring immediate attention.

Independent MP Waddah Sadek, speaking to The National, denounced the prevailing “chaos” at the airport and the authorities' lack of action in swiftly implementing necessary measures.

He said he will prioritise the airport file with the parliamentary committee on public works.

“There is no room for errors; one mistake could result in the loss of hundreds of lives,” he said.

The report, conducted by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), highlighted various concerns, including a shortage of air-traffic controllers.

Lebanese air-traffic controllers 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.

The revelations have caused public outrage and led to threats of strike actions by air-traffic controllers.

This has prompted authorities to unveil a series of measures.

It has been reported that the authorities are considering the recruitment of air-traffic controllers from Iraq, intended as a temporary solution to mitigate the staffing crisis.

Mr Sadek questioned the adequacy of these actions.

“Given Iraq's own safety concerns, how can they effectively assist us?" he asked.

Iraq's ranking in air navigation services, which include mainly air traffic control services, lags behind Lebanon's, according to the website of the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Both countries are significantly below the global average.

He also question the sustainability of the proposal. "We need to train our existing workforce”.

The lower tiers of the air safety hierarchy – those who operate on the ground or as assistants – have been working without certification for a decade and a half.

Moreover, around 20 air-traffic controllers, who successfully passed exams to gain the job in 2018, still await their training.

The promotion's validation was postponed since then, reportedly due to concerns of potential “sectarian imbalances”, as most of the successful candidates were Muslim.

Pervasive corruption

For Mr Sadek, these concerns are the symptoms of deeper systemic issues, namely, the pervasive corruption at the airport.

According to him, most contracts are awarded without competitive tenders, raising serious questions about transparency.

“Authorities have squandered funds on dubious and costly contracts instead of channelling these resources towards essential reforms,” Mr Sadek said.

In March, a mutual agreement between the Lebanese government and two private firms for the construction and operation of a second terminal was cancelled amid outrage, after critics said that the contract constituted a serious breach of the public procurement law.

This was considered a rare victory for civil society.

But for other contracts, “there are lingering questions that demand answers.”

Mr Sadek said he is requesting access to all contracts for a thorough review, aimed at identifying potential conflicts of interest and overpricing.

In the presence of evidence of misconduct, his team is prepared to pursue legal action.

“With the airport making headlines, a lot of people have reached out, saying they are ready to share information”, he said.

He said that the deficiency in oversight is intrinsic to the airport management structure, citing the fact that the airport director reports to himself in his capacity as the Director General of Civil Aviation.

For Mr Sadek, the problem behind Beirut's airport woes are not financial. He said the airport is making around $250 million yearly from fees alone, citing draft legislation that was discussed in parliament. Lebanese acting transport minister Ali Hamieh says the sum is revenue and little is left after operational costs.

“We have a substantial income and we could do a lot,” he said.

But, there is a reluctance to change.

“There is no interest to change to status quo because it threatens vested interests of the political parties,” he added.

Updated: September 21, 2023, 4:14 AM