Dubai Air Show

Rebuilt Beirut airport finds recovery elusive

 - November 13, 2007, 5:01 AM

Enthusiasm over a near 50-percent year-over-year jump in passenger traffic had reached a climax early in the summer of 2006 at Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport when, in an instant, on July 13 Israeli bombs shattered and set ablaze all the good feelings along with vast chunks of runway and the airport’s main fuel tanks.

Although the physical damage paled in comparison to the toll the wider bombardment took on the country at large, the sudden loss of Lebanon’s link to the rest of the world and the subsequent blockade would become one of the campaign’s most memorable spectacles.

The attack on the airport–carried out under the rationale that the Islamic militant group Hezbollah received weapons shipments there–left its three runways and adjacent taxiways pockmarked with 20 bomb craters. Work crews managed to repair Runways 17/35 and the new 03/21 within a month, allowing the first commercial flights to arrive from Amman, Jordan, on Aug. 17, 2006, just three days after the UN-brokered cease-fire went into effect. However, scheduled service from the 54 various airlines that serve the airport did not start until Israel lifted its aerial blockade three weeks later, on September 7.

In fact, it took work crews some eight months to repair all the damage to Lebanon’s newly reconstructed international gateway, airport information manager Darwish Ammar told AIN. Even after the airport’s reopening, tunnels underneath the runways needed repair and reinforcement, while the more extensive damage to the third runway, 16/34, and fuel facilities required still further attention.

Unfortunately, the damage to Lebanon’s tourism industry–and the financial health of the airport and state flag carrier Middle East Airlines–will take even longer to mend.
By early 2006 tourism accounted for at least 12 percent of Lebanon’s gross domestic product. The country’s tourism industry benefited greatly from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, after which many wealthy travelers from the Arabian Gulf states and Saudi Arabia stopped vacationing in the U.S. and the West in general, opting instead for the mountains and seashore resorts of Lebanon.

It seemed that, finally, all the investment that went into a grand 11-year renovation of the airport had begun to pay dividends. Renamed in June 2005 Rafik Hariri International in honor of Lebanon’s slain prime minister, the airport underwent a complete reconstruction starting in 1994, the first phase of which saw the creation of a new 12-gate passenger terminal, along with a fire station, power plant fuel farm, training facilities and radar building.

Soon after opening the new terminal in 1998, the airport razed the old facility and added a new wing that consisted of 12 more gates. With the opening of the second half of the terminal and the new runways in 2002, Beirut’s airport now carries enough capacity to accommodate six million passengers per year.

Completed in June 2005 with the opening of a general aviation terminal on the northwestern corner of the airport, the gleaming new international gateway exemplified the revitalization and promise of a land torn by the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. The general aviation terminal houses two FBOs providing full-service to business and private jet operators: the Cedar Jet Center, which is part of Middle East Airlines Ground Handling, and a new joint venture between Universal Weather & Aviation and local charter firm Imperial (formerly Cirrus Middle East).

Traffic projections for last year promised an improvement over the mark of three million passengers set in 2005, when the February assassination of Prime Minister Hariri triggered a lull in tourism and the first year-over-year decline in airport traffic since 1990.

Traffic reached a peak in 2004, when the airport’s throughput of 3.33 million passengers represented a 17.4-percent increase over the 2.8 million counted in 2003–the year the airport finally saw passenger totals return to pre-civil-war levels.
The war between Israel and Hezbollah put an abrupt end to any thought of regaining the lost momentum, however, and the subsequent political turmoil within Lebanon has served only to hinder any recovery. Amman said traffic last year fell to roughly two million passengers–a level not seen since 1997.

This year, fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah Islam militants in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in the north of the country resulted in yet another lackluster summer tourist season. By the end of September, traffic totals barely reached 1.5 million passengers.

Despite the setbacks, the airport hasn’t shed employees, said Ammar, as everyone hopes for a swift return to the pace of growth experienced through 2004. In fact, he described traffic between Beirut and the Far East and Europe, buoyed by a stable base of Lebanese vacationers and business people, as “very strong.” Virtually nonexistent leisure traffic from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia has made the difference. Once some semblance of stability returns to Lebanon, officials fully expect the country’s traditional base of visitors to follow.

Middle East Airlines appears confident of a fairly rapid recovery as well, having over the summer announced plans to increase its fleet from nine Airbus airplanes to 14 with the help of a recent $60 million financing commitment from Fransabank for two A320-200s and Bank Audi for four others. Now flying three A330-200s and six A321-200s, MEA plans to buy eight new airplanes in all–four A330s and four A320s–and return three of its existing airplanes to their lessors.

MEA registered profits in 2004 and 2005 of $50 million and $46 million, respectively, and during the first half of 2006 appeared poised for its best year ever. Despite the war, the airline managed to turn a $20 million profit during the year–some $45 million less than it estimates it would have otherwise earned.