At Beirut airport, the tower maintains control — for now

As air traffic controllers and international experts raise concerns about staffing levels at Beirut airport, the ongoing crisis has worsened chronic under-staffing.

At Beirut airport, the tower maintains control — for now

An aerial view of Beirut airport, taken March 7, 2020. (Credit: Patrick Baz/AFP)

“Another impending disaster." “Not the news you want to encounter before your departure.” “It seems they haven’t absorbed any lessons from the Beirut port explosion.”

These are the alarmed reactions posted on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) the day after the Emirati daily The National last month published excerpts from an international report on air navigation safety at Beirut International Airport, which were subsequently picked up by various Lebanese publications.

Two international oversight bodies — the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — visited Beirut in June as part of their mandate to assist local authorities in preparing for ICAO’s Universal Safety Audit Programme (USAP), scheduled for 2024.

During the previous audit in 2017, Lebanon scored 58.5 percent, significantly below the global average of 69.8 percent. At that time, auditors had posed 251 protocol questions to Lebanese authorities. To date, responses to most of these questions, particularly those related to oversight responsibilities in the field of air navigation services, are still pending.

The June report, which L’Orient-Le Jour viewed, points to “systemic failures” in air navigation services, including air traffic control, communication, navigation, surveillance and meteorological services at Beirut airport.

While experts emphasize the lack of human resources in all these services, they stress in particular the “urgent need” for the Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile (DGAC) to “implement a recruitment policy” for air traffic controllers, whose “under-staffing is a serious safety issue that could have crucial repercussions for aviation in Lebanon.”

When contacted, the ICAO referred L’Orient-Le Jour to the DGAC, whose director, Fadi Hassan, declined to comment.


Seizing this opportunity to press their demands, the airport air traffic controllers announced in a press release Aug. 24 that they would strike from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. on Tuesday Sept. 5

In a statement, they said that for years they “have been calling for new recruit training,” and that they “are exhausted by inhuman` working hours,” accumulating up to “300 hours of work” per month.

The statement added that there are now just 13 active air traffic controllers out of the 87 positions required for Beirut’s airport.

This presents a striking discrepancy, especially considering the potential safety implications.

Often cited as a reference, the figure of 87 air traffic controllers is derived from Law No. 1610 of 1971, which has since been replaced by Law 481 of 2002 — which, notably, has yet to be enforced.

While L’Orient-Le Jour couldn’t confirm whether Beirut Airport ever employed 87 air traffic controllers, a Lebanese aviation expert who requested anonymity said that “in the early 2000s, there were already fewer than 30 air traffic controllers,” claiming, “but this was not a significant issue.”

The anonymous expert emphasized that, currently, neither the 2002 law nor any international regulatory body defines a specific minimum requirement for the number of air traffic controllers needed at the airport.

The financial crisis that has gripped the country for the past four years has severely impacted the salaries of these civil servants, who are paid in Lebanese lira. As a result, the anonymous expert said, “some of them have sought better opportunities abroad.”

“Others,” he said, “have reached retirement age.”

According to Kris Kashouh, the creator of the travel website Lebanese Plane Spotters, who maintains regular contact with air traffic controllers, “some retirees have been called back into service.”

One controller, he said, remains professionally active at the age of 75.

At the same time, vacant positions once belonging to certified controllers have not been filled, despite the arrival of new recruits.

“In 2010, 20 assistant controllers were hired, but they still haven’t been trained,” said the anonymous aviation expert.

To become certified, he said future Lebanese controllers must not only undergo on-the-job training in Lebanon, but at one of the European or North American ICAO-certified organizations.

Why the delay?

The budget required for their training has never been released, due to the crisis.

However, there does seem to be a glimmer of hope. On Aug. 29, after a meeting with the airport management and air navigation services, air traffic controllers announced the adoption of a roadmap.

The roadmap outlines plans for the “expedited implementation and funding of the training program” for new assistant air traffic controllers. Additionally, it includes the proposal that the agenda of the upcoming cabinet meeting include the decree for the recruitment of approximately 20 candidates who successfully passed the assistant controller exams in 2018.

The roadmap also provides for the temporary recruitment of approved controllers, until these new recruits are ready to take up their posts.

According to the anonymous aviation expert, “during this period, which could last up to three years, the airport will have to outsource its security activities.”

“There has been a preliminary agreement between the DGAC and the Lebanese and Iraqi Ministries of Transport to hire 10 Iraqi controllers on a two-year contract to fill the gap,” the expert added.

A band-aid on a festering wound

If adopted, this solution would be problematic, the anonymous expert said, given that Iraq’s main airline, Iraqi Airways, has been blacklisted by the European Union (EU).

The EU delegation in Lebanon told L’Orient-Le Jour that there is “no link between the presence of Iraqi Airways on the EU aviation security list and the potential recruitment of Iraqi air traffic controllers.”

In the meantime, should the Beirut airport passengers be worried?

Certainly, the current shortage of air traffic controllers poses the threat of human error, acknowledged captain Allen Dib, President of the Lebanese Pilots’ Union.

“Their work demands acute concentration, especially in winter, when they have to suggest that pilots deviate from assigned routes due to bad weather,” Dib said. “The proximity of the AIB to high-altitude areas adds difficulties and stress to their work.”

“In this business, there’s no room for error, which is immediately synonymous with disaster,” Dib added.

Foreign airlines, known for maintaining exceptionally high safety standards, serve as the ultimate arbiters of safety, Kashouh suggests.

“When Air France, Lufthansa or Emirates Airlines stop flying to Beirut,” he said, “that’s when we’ll be able to say that things are really going sour.”

Air France does not seem particularly worried.

“Crews have not reported any incidents involving air navigation services in Beirut or Lebanon in general,” Air France media relations officer Christophe Paumier told L’Orient-Le Jour.

For the anonymous aviation expert, the only way to respond to the airport’s safety challenges is to enact Law No. 481 of 2002, providing for the creation of an independent Civil Aviation Authority, which would include, among other things, an air navigation services inspection corps.

“Without this separation between aviation safety issues and Lebanon’s political volatility, we will continue to apply band-aids on an open wound,” the expert said.

He added that the 20-odd candidates who took the exam back in 2018 were not recruited by then-President Michel Aoun under the pretext of forestalling a sectarian imbalance, as most of the future air traffic controllers are Muslims.

In Lebanon, the sky too has confessional quotas.

This story first ran in French in L’Orient-Le Jour, translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.

“Another impending disaster." “Not the news you want to encounter before your departure.” “It seems they haven’t absorbed any lessons from the Beirut port explosion.”These are the alarmed reactions posted on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) the day after the Emirati daily The National last month published excerpts from an international report on air navigation safety at...