Queue jumping and backhanders a fact of life at Beirut airport
Those who bemoan the decline of Lebanon’s service industry clearly don’t travel enough. There is a new breed of entrepreneur at work at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport (RHIA). I can report that resourceful porters can now substantially boost their earnings by offering their own “fast track” service to passengers who are either in a hurry or who simply want to avoid mingling with the great unwashed. All this takes place under the accepting eyes of both airline and security officials.
Security measures at RHIA begin with passengers putting their luggage through an X-ray scanner before reaching any check-in desk. Depending on the time of day this can be a relatively painless process, but at 6am it’s often a bit of a scrum.
Enter the porter for whom, at a price, nothing is impossible. He will grab your bags, throw them on his trolley and tell you to do nothing; say nothing and just follow him. He will whisk your luggage down a parallel aisle (what the Lebanese might call a khat askari, or military line, the name given to the sinister private road that would take VIPs from the Lebanese border to Damascus during the days of détente) and shamelessly unload them on to the scanner’s conveyer belt – in full view of security personnel – before ushering you through the body-scanning doorway. He will then hurry you – even if you are not eligible – to the frequent flyer and business class check-in line and ensure you are issued with a boarding pass in a fraction of the time.
I can vouch for all this because I was that passenger. I admit it was wrong but I applied balm to my conscience with the knowledge that I really had no say in the matter once the process had begun. I told the porter I was happy to wait in line for the security check and then protested, meekly it must be said, when I was directed to the business class desk, but on each occasion I was basically told to shut up; enjoy the ride and leave everything to him. My inability to relax and embrace the experience was compounded by the knowledge that such a “service” would surely come at a price.
I bunged him $20, which I thought was a fortune but he just grunted and hurried off in search of a new client. Our “relationship” was over but it occurred to me that for a 10-minute service, his average hourly rate put this most enterprising porter in the country’s upper wage band (even if, as I suspect, some of his revenues are “redistributed”).
That said, the tariff is quite fair, given the other services on offer. Our porter was probably inspired by what a friend once described as the “$100 man”, a more polished facilitator who, for the eponymous fee, will ensure a smooth passage for those passengers who simply cannot stomach looking authority in the eye and for whom having to behave like the general public is beyond the pale of human dignity. This service is pre-booked and extends beyond the check-in desk to being whisked through passport control and into the safety of the front cabin of the aircraft. Those landing in Beirut with similar anxieties can avail themselves of a similar service to get them off the plane.
It’s an appalling system, not only because it is clearly illegal but also because it reinforces the belief held by many Lebanese that money will trump the rule book every time.
Authority is equally subject to petty abuse, especially among minor public servants who are never shy to show they have the power to make things happen. When I last flew into Beirut, passport control was unusually busy. It was after midnight; babies were crying and nerves were frayed.
The immigration officer at the head of my line spotted a friend at the back of a different queue. He motioned him to the front. The two men hugged and kissed. Passport formalities were immediately dealt with. Amazing. But it was the response from the rest of the passengers that was revealing. No one said a word. Was it out of resignation or fear that any complaint might backfire and prolong their fatigue? This little man did after all have the power to make life difficult if he wanted.
Anyway, can I honestly say I wasn’t relieved to have been whisked through the crowds first thing in the morning and can I also, hand on heart, say I wouldn’t do it again?
I’m not sure I can.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter