Beirut Airport

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Not the usual trip report, but a most interesting visit for me during August this year. While being on holiday in Lebanon I had the rare opportunity to visit Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport to report about the civil operations there.
© Text & Photos: Dr. Andreas Zeitler – Permission to publish excerpts is strictly required!

BeyWhere? Beirut, Lebanon
When? August 2007

"We operate in a very extraordinary manner here, because we live in a very critical and unstable situation", with these words Dr. Hamdi Chaouk, Director General of Civil Aviation at Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport , described the daily business at the airport.

Whereas airline passengers can usually enjoy the view of the beautiful Mediterranean coastline, passing the capital's beach promenade "La Corniche" with the famous pigeon rock "Raouché", Beirut's most famous landmark, during the approach, this lets forget to easily that 'Cedar country' is still far from being secure and in a very difficult political position.

Middle East Airlines

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Beirut's Home Carrier

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CinemaAfter the hard years of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) a growth in passenger numbers from 300.000 to about 3.5 million per year was achieved at the airport, when important infrastructure at the airport was again destroyed by Israeli attacks on July 13th, 2006. During the build-up the airport was closed for around a month until the flights were resumed. At that time the everyday challenges the airport had to face with its political and economic environment naturally did not cease to exist. Conflicts in the north of the country for example were still going on, but a recovery and the continuation of the boom was expected by the airport management, strongly supported by the new Lebanese Aviation Regulations (LAR), that were introduced in 2002.

regular International Flights

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The most significant pillar of these improvements is the introduction of an "Open Sky Policy" in 2002, that grants all airlines flying into Lebanon all freedoms without reciprocity with a full liberal approach. Additional to these generous regulations the airport is also operating 24h a day, giving the airlines the free choice of their arrival time assuring the best flexibility to respond to their customer needs. This brought a peak hour in the very early morning between midnight and 4am, when most aircraft leave to Europe or Asia and many aircraft, especially those of MEA (Middle East Airlines, Beirut's home carrier), approaching Beirut in the late afternoon. In contrast to this regional flights to the Middle East or Africa do mainly operate in the morning.

 

Charter Airlines

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Business Jets

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Another factor in the growth of Beirut airport are also the cargo activities, but in contrast to the passengers these numbers show a more irregular development. Due to the small size of the country a big need for these flights does not exist and the free capacity in the cargo bay of airliners is still sufficient to cover this market. After the flight cessation of TAM pure cargo aircraft arrive at Beirut very rare, which is hard to imagine reflecting the days when TAMs fleet green B707 flew all around the globe transferring goods from one continent to the other. Today a big part of their fleet is stored at the cargo area at the airport in a non-airworthy condition. But apparently TAM has found new investors that will invest in new aircraft in the near future and reclaim the traffic rights that it still holds, which should also lead to an increased cargo market in Beirut.

the remainings of "TMA of Lebanon"'s fleet

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With more visions for the longer term and the past experiences and needs to react quickly to unforeseen situation the airport management is envisaging a prosperous future for Beirut's airport. A big growth in passenger numbers is always possible as the airport already proofed in the past that it can develop quickly when things are moving and the outer circumstances are convenient. The reason for this is a “strong base, financially and socially, or human or geographically", Dr. Chaouk explained, "but we have to wait for stability”, the most important requirement for a recovery in this difficult region of the Middle East.

Airport History

At his current location the airport has been opened on April, 23rd 1954. At that time Beirut Airport had two runways, running parallel to the coastline approximately in a north-south direction with the headings 03/21 and 18/36. Lebanon has been in a period of prosperity and the airport itself was the gate to the "Paris of the middle east", how Beirut has often been referred to at that time. The airport grew fast and developed to the premier hub in the Middle East, and so grew the Lebanese airlines as well, of which today only Middle East Airlines (MEA) and Trans Mediterranean Airlines (TMA) exist. However this boom did not last very long as the airport had to suffer under Israeli attacks at the end of 1968, during which 13 aircraft were also destroyed. Following these attacks two Lebanese airlines became bankrupt.

But the most difficult period for the airport began in April 1975 with the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war, that should divide the country during the following 15 years.

Despite all the hostile activities airport operations were continued, depending on the circumstances, as much as possible. Even the terminal was renovated in between the conflict in 1977, only to be destroyed 5 years later during the Israel invasion of the country. In the 1980s both runways were refurbished as well, but at the end of the war in 1990 the airport was at the end of it's tether and with only 300.000 passengers per year a new low mark of passenger numbers has been reached.

In the same year an extensive renovation program has been decided upon that was started in 1994 with a planned duration of 10 years and aimed to bring Beirut airport back on the track. Besides all the construction in progress the most significant change to the airport in recent years was the renaming to Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport in June 2005 in honour of the assassinated Lebanese prime minister.

Lebanese Military Aviation

BEY is currently also the main airbase for the fleet of combat helicopters of the Lebanese Air Force (LAF), but photography of the aircraft as well as of the premises was strictly prohibited during my stay due to the fighting in the north of the country.

Furthermore all UN flights coming into the country will land at BEY. Besides some civil aircraft the highlight during my visit was a C-130 of the UAE.

Currently the LAF is using the Bell UH-1H Huey and SA342L Gazelle helicopters, mainly in the close air support role. To fulfil this role the Hueys have been modified to carry (aircraft) bombs as a slung load and the Gazelle helicopters have been fitted with unguided missiles. Furthermore the UH-1H is also used as VIP transport and for CSAR. Training for new pilots is carried out at Rayak airbase in the Bekkah valley with Robinson R44.

After the Hawker Hunters no more jet aircraft are in service with the LAF, though the recent conflicts have fuelled up the discussion to re-introduce combat aircraft, though the future of these planes is still uncertain.


I have to express my sincere thanks to Dr.Hamdi Chaouk, Director General of Civil Aviation and Ibrahim Barakat, Deputy Airport Manager, for their time and invaluable support given during my stay and the preparation of this report. Furthermore Rami F., Civil Engineer, for his most excellent apron tour. It was a very pleasurable stay with you all!

Extensive articles following this visit have been published in FlugRevue 10/2007 and Aircraft Illustrated. The article published here is only an excerpt of the them.
One can also be found at the website of FlugRevue: http://www.flug-revue.rotor.com/FRheft/FRHeft07/FRH0710/FR0710b.htm

Further Links for the interested reader include:

Beirut Int'l Airport  Homepage: http://www.beirutairport.gov.lb/
Spotter's at Beirut: http://www.beirutspotters.com/
Lebanese Armed Forces: http://www.lebarmy.gov.lb/English/AirforceMain.asp

© Text & Photos: Dr. Andreas Zeitler – Permission to publish excerpts is required!

 

 


Mercedes Beirut, once the "Paris of the East", is a city marked by long years of war and division. Today, 12 years after the end of the civil war, many of these scars are still visible and can be clearly felt. But nevertheless a lot of construction sites show the emerging character of this city and it can only be hoped that the country will conserve a time of peace that will be long enough to bring forward social cohesion and to ensure stability.
But this, however, only the future will tell us…
Here are some impressions of my tours around the city:

 

The old and the new signs of conflicts in the city

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Beautiful Beirut

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Beirut at Night

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A visit to Jbeil (Byblus)

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