Infrastructure in all its variations is vital to any country and in the 21st century that means having safe and reliable aviation links. We live in a complex, interconnected world and air travel – whether to carry passengers, cargo or humanitarian aid – is an essential requirement in the modern age. Yesterday The National highlighted serious safety concerns about Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, another troubling reflection of how far Lebanon has been allowed to fall.
The country’s myriad economic and political problems have been well documented, and in January The National reported on how a landfill of rotting waste close to the capital’s airport was attracting seagulls that increased the risk of planes suffering a bird strike. But the fact that a pre-audit inspection carried out by the EU’s Aviation Safety Agency and International Civil Aviation Organisation has identified “systemic deficiencies” in the airport’s operations, particularly regarding air traffic control, is illustrative of the country’s malaise.
The importance of the airport to Lebanon’s people cannot be overstated. It is the primary link for the millions around the world who make up the country’s diaspora – a community that far outnumbers the estimated four million people who currently live in Lebanon. Many of the millions of Lebanese who arrive at Beirut’s main airport every year not only support family and the wider economy in the country through remittances and spending – they are regular visitors to a place that forms an irreplaceable part of their identity. The airport is also critical for thousands of Syrians who use it as an alternative starting point for journeys home.
Aside from passenger traffic, the airport is also an important cargo hub for the whole country. Concerns about the reliability and safety of operations there will do little to persuade businesses and investors that Lebanon is on any path but one to further decline. For this situation to change, decisive measures will have to be taken.
The inspection that formed the basis of the report’s findings was intended to offer guidance in preparation for a full audit of the airport, scheduled for next year. This week’s news, although bad, provides the Lebanese civil aviation authorities with an opportunity to address the gaps and weaknesses that have been found. Among these, air traffic control is perhaps the most pressing. The report said the “recruitment and retention of appropriately qualified and experienced” air traffic control staff was “a matter of utmost urgency”.
There is no shortage of bright, qualified Lebanese people who could take on these roles but the economic and political paralysis that has rendered the country almost unendurable for many citizens has driven away those with precisely the kind of skills needed to get the airport back on track. An anonymous source from the Lebanese civil aviation department told The National that air-traffic controllers tried over the years “to demand employment and training with all successive ministers to avoid this situation, in vain".
In the short term, outside assistance may be necessary. During a recent session of Parliament, Ali Hamie, Lebanon’s caretaker Public Works Minister, said the recruitment of air-traffic controllers from the ICAO to tackle the staff shortage, had been considered. This may be a necessary short-term development to prepare the airport for future inspections and to guarantee the safety of passengers and aircraft. In the long term, the airport could benefit from international input – many major airports across the world are operated successfully by consortiums that involve private companies and domestic or foreign governments.
If any lessons are to be learnt from the Beirut port blast from three years ago, it is that negligence puts people’s lives at risk. This week’s report has put the authorities in Lebanon on notice – it is now time for them to act.