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Security fears reignite Qleiaat Airport debate

A view of the Qleiaat Airport taken from Goolgle Earth. The gray line represents the Lebanese-Syrian border.

BEIRUT: The debate over the rehabilitation and opening of Qleiaat Airport has once again come into the spotlight as security incidents near Rafik Hariri International Airport and a growing aviation industry have underscored the need for a second transport hub.

A group of political activists affiliated with the March 14 alliance revived the subject at a news conference last week in a bid to push for securing Beirut’s airport and refurbishing the facility in Qleiaat.

“We are here today after it became impossible to remain silent over the security conditions at [Rafik Hariri] International Airport and the roads linking to it,” political activist Karim Rifai said at the news conference, which followed the kidnapping of two Turkish Airlines pilots on their way from the airport to their hotel.

Apart from security concerns, experts agree that a second airport is needed to accommodatethe air travel sector. The sector has seen sizeable growth over the past few years despite economic activity falling across the board and a double digit decline in tourism, suggesting that branching out into a second airport would be a sound strategy.

According to the latest statistics released by the Beirut airport, the number of passengers passing through the facility increased by 4.5 percent year-on-year in the first seven months of 2013. Arriving passengers rose by 1.2 percent to 1,733,383 and departures increased by 9.4 percent to 1,813,291.

Growth at the airport was not restricted to passengers as freight increased by an impressive 35.4 percent during the same period.

Fadi Khalil, the head of the Lebanese Pilots Association, disassociates his group from the political debate about the second airport.

Pilots, he told The Daily Star, support any initiative to help the sector take off, creating jobs for aviators, ground staff and the local population.

“[Rehabilitating the Qleiaat Airport] will be conducive to expanding the sector and will attract more companies allowing the sector to expand and create job opportunities,” he said.

But for such an initiative to be successful, key infrastructures should be constructed first. “To create an air transport hub [in Qleiaat] you need to have a package of security, transportation infrastructure, and so on. It is not as simple as rehabilitation,” he said.

But whether Qleiaat is ideally located to serve as a transport hub is also up for debate, although Khalil dismissed the security threats to aviation arising from the conflict in Syria. He said aircraft would be able to take off and land without the need to pass through the Syrian airspace.

Lebanon’s flag carrier Middle East Airlines is one of a handful of operators that still flies over Syria. It has maintained that these operations are safe and said international insurance companies were not reconsidering their MEA insurance contracts.

CEO Mohammad al-Hout was unavailable to comment on whether MEA supports the rehabilitation of Qleiaat airport.

Khalil said that while Lebanese pilots a few months ago frequently reported seeing projectiles as they flew above Syria, “there have been no such reports at all since the Qusair battle.”

He added that the projectiles were not deemed to be a danger to aircraft.

Walid Naja, project manager at Bayanat Airports Engineering & Supplies in Abu Dhabi, told The Daily Star that while he recommended proceeding with the Qleiaat project, safety concerns should be taken into consideration.

“Qleiaat Airport has a very specific peculiarity, which is its geographic proximity to the Lebanese-Syrian borders and the implication of this proximity to its operation, more precisely, to its approach and landing procedures,” he told The Daily Star.

While takeoff from runway 24 at Qleiaat Airport poses no concern as aircraft will be directly above open water, landing aircraft ideally requires a low altitude approach vector from above Syrian territory, he said.

Overflying the Syrian territories witnessing ongoing hostilities would raise safety questions, particularly given that aircraft flying at low altitudes would be within range of small-arms fire, Naja explained.

But there are solutions to the problem, he added.

“Given the current situation in Syria, an aircraft can also land on runway 06 by approaching directly from above the sea onto the runway,” he added, but noted that this would require skilled pilots.

Naja also noted that whether the pilot needed to contact Beirut Radar or Damascus Radar during approach was a matter that needed to be resolved

“The answer to this question can only become available when both parties, the Lebanese Civil Aviation Authority and the Syrian Civil Aviation Authority meet together, discuss this issue, and come up with an understanding or agreement. Can this happen in the current political situation? Probably not.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 21, 2013, on page 5.

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