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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Lebanon reels from airport baggage fault chaos

Angry scenes at Beirut's Rafic Hariri Airport expose years of overcrowding

A Middle East Airlines plane preparing to take off from Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport on April 11, 2014. AFP 
A Middle East Airlines plane preparing to take off from Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport on April 11, 2014. AFP 

Lebanese authorities were scrambling on Monday to limit the fallout from a systems failure that saw thousands of passengers stranded at the country's only commercial airport.

The chaotic scenes on Thursday night capped a summer of difficulties and have renewed calls for a long-promised expansion.

A software fault caused upheaval in baggage control and passengers took to social media to complain of missed flights, sharing pictures of a crowded departure hall.

"It was shoulder-to-shoulder as soon as you stepped inside," said Danny Khalil, a passenger who missed his flight at Rafic Hariri Airport.

"People were yelling at employees, at each other, you name it."

Prime minister-designate Saad Hariri called an emergency meeting to address the incident and normal service was resumed a few hours later.

However the fault has exposed broader problems.

The airport has been operating well above capacity for five years. It was designed to handle six million passengers annually, but last year more than eight million passed through. This year is set to be even busier — July saw a five per cent increase in traffic on last year.

The airport has also faced severe staff shortages. Due to arguments over the representation of Lebanon's different sects in the industry, it currently employs a fifth of the number of air traffic controllers it should.

Various plans for expansion of the airport have stalled.

Beirut's Rafic Hariri Airport is facing a funding and staff crisis. AFP
Beirut's Rafic Hariri Airport is facing a funding and staff crisis. AFP

The government is considering a $200m proposal that would boost the airport's capacity to 10 million, but that project would not start until 2020.

A separate and more urgent $88m plan to update equipment and infrastructure has been partly funded, but implementation has been pushed back by a delay in Lebanon’s government formation.

Caretaker Minister of Public Works and Transport Youssef Fenianos issued a rare apology last month for congestion at the airport, blaming a lack of funding.

"I warned that this will happen, we needed a funding of $100m but received $18m only," he said.

In the aftermath of last week’s chaos, Mr Fenianos called again for the full $88m to be made available.

Experts say money alone will not be enough to fix Lebanon’s airport woes.

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Read more:

Lebanon's latest problem: too few air traffic controllers

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Even if the most ambitious plan to spend $200m on expanding the airport is approved, the facility is likely to be over capacity again by the time it is finished.

"There is no proper policy planning or strategy that reflects the economic vision of the country. We are just seeing ad-hoc fixes," said Dr Nadine Itani, an aviation expert and former member of the International Civil Aviation Organization delegation to Lebanon.

"Aviation needs institutional reform. It is being politicised like all other sectors in the country because it is seen as lucrative by politicians."