Lebanon needs to heed warnings about its airport safety before it’s too late

The Beirut port explosion should serve as a lesson for those in power to act fast

Jets parked at Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport in Lebanon. Lebanese Plane Spotters / Facebook
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Much like the rest of the country, Lebanon’s only international airport is an enigma. Its departure hall leaves a heaviness in my chest that I can’t shake off, while its arrival hall makes me feel as giddy as a child in a candy store.

Every few months, for the past two years now, I have flown to Beirut from Abu Dhabi for vacation. I already know standing up once the plane lands won’t get me there faster, but my restlessness takes over and all I want to do is make a beeline towards the crowd of beaming faces in the arrivals, where my family awaits.

When the holidays come to an end and it’s time to go back, I stall and stall before I leave the house. I second guess every decision that led me to moving away from my home and family, but deep down I know why I left. The airport is proof, and it exemplifies how pretty much everything else is run in the country.

It seems Lebanon is averting a crisis by mere chance, not due diligence

The Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport may not be perfect but it’s functional, I would often think to myself. But not only is that insufficient, it is also very, very dangerous.

An inspection of Beirut's airport that The National reported on exclusively has shed light on inadequate safety measures that require urgent action.

Conducted by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN agency whose remit is to promote the safe and orderly development of civil aviation around the world, the report flagged the lack of certified air-traffic controllers at the Beirut airport as a “serious safety issue, which could have critical repercussions for aviation in Lebanon”.

Air-traffic controllers (ATC) guide the plane from taxiing to take-off and landing, ensuring safe spacing and efficient routes by providing instructions to the aircraft – a crucial task in a country that prides itself in welcoming millions of travellers this summer, despite a financial crisis.

According to a source from the Lebanese civil aviation department, there are only 15 certified controllers employed at Beirut airport currently out of 87 as a standard requirement.

With the expats and tourists comes the money, in the eyes of authorities, but not enough to guarantee them a safe flight. And with the fully booked planes comes a certain sense of responsibility and a certain logistical standard that Lebanon’s airport has failed to reach, with delays and queues causing an outcry over the past months.

With less people on the job and more work to do, “there is a higher risk of errors, which could have catastrophic consequences”, an aviation expert told The National.

So, it seems Lebanon is averting a crisis by mere chance, not due diligence. And while that is inherently disappointing, it is not surprising.

The newly shed light on Beirut airport’s questionable safety is a gruelling reminder of the 2020 Beirut port explosion, a disaster that could have been avoided had authorities taken action.

For years, thousands of tonnes of highly inflammable ammonium nitrate were improperly stored at the heart of the capital, where many of us lived and worked. Piling evidence shows that authorities had prior knowledge of the material stored at the port, but never made the effort to move it – despite multiple warnings.

For many years, we lived near a ticking bomb that eventually went off – killing more than 215 people and injuring thousands more. The mental and emotional scars from the explosion are still visible today. Many of those who survived say they did so by mere luck – working from home due to Covid-19, taking their daily route at an earlier time than they usually would, or avoiding an area altogether because of last-minute plans.

But we cannot keep counting on luck, and we cannot keep surviving by chance.

The global watchdog report on the Beirut airport’s safety has called on Lebanese authorities to address inadequacies with the “utmost urgency”. I couldn't agree more.

There is no shortage of skilled labour or talent in Lebanon to justify the deficit in air-traffic controllers. In fact, the airport has at least 20 qualified candidates who passed the exam a few years ago ready to jump on the job and ease the burden on their colleagues.

They were reportedly never considered for the job “due to concerns about creating a sectarian imbalance in the country, as most were Muslim”.

Much like corruption and negligence, sectarianism plagues Lebanon and is the root of many of its political crises.

An ancient system that was introduced with Lebanon’s independence in 1943 divides power-sharing in the country along sectarian lines until this day. And just as authorities failed to learn from the port explosion, they also failed to learn from the country’s 15-year-long bloody civil war that was triggered by sectarian tensions.

So not only is the country’s president, prime minister and parliament speaker all selected according to their sects – not credentials – so are its air-traffic controllers.

Ironically enough, even the airport's naming is a sectarian battle, with some referring to it as Rafic Hariri International Airport and others choosing not to.

As someone who flies to Lebanon and back frequently, I believe I speak on behalf of many expatriates when I say I do not care about the religious beliefs of the controllers guiding my flight; all I care about is that they efficiently do their job.

Lebanese authorities need to act fast. The priority at the moment is not to open more restaurants and cafes at the arrival and departure halls for travellers, but to hire more staff to spare travellers’ lives.

It has been three years since the Beirut port blast, and although the stalled probe has delayed justice, the lesson is loud and clear.

Act now, before it is too late.

Published: August 20, 2023, 11:00 AM