American owned airlines have been prohibited from flying to Lebanon since 1985, when kidnappings and hijackings were more common than tourists at Beirut International Airport.
But now Delta will become the latest American owned airline to open an office in Beirut, joining United Airlines and American Airlines. Jimmy Eichelgruen, Delta’s director of sales for the Middle East and Africa, explained the new Beirut office is part of Delta’s global expansion.
“Delta was predominately a domestic airline and it has only been in the past four years that it has grown to [have a 50-50 split between] domestic and international flights,” he said. “The expansion of Delta has been phenomenal. Only two years ago the airline did not fly to the Middle East at all.”
Delta currently flies direct to Dubai, Kuwait, Cairo, Amman, Istanbul and Tel Aviv. Delta has 37 weekly flights to the Middle East, which is more than the other American airlines combined. This has meant that Delta has been in a prime position to profit in one of the fastest growing regions for aviation.
As to whether the new Delta office might suggest that the ban on US carriers flying to Lebanon will be lifted, Eichelgruen would not say.
“At the present time, US carriers are prohibited by the US government from flying to Lebanon,” he said.
During the Nahr al-Bared conflict, the US government did relax flight restriction, allowing military and humanitarian flights to arrive. But the ban remains for commercial airlines, and there is no sign that the restriction on US carriers will be lifted or even eased any time soon.
The new Delta office is set to open in the Starco building, with an initial staff of three that will deal with flight reservations and sales. Eichelgruen said the demand for American airlines to set up offices in Lebanon exists.
“Lebanon has a massive number of people living in the US, as many as 750,000, and the open skies policy is a good incentive to set up an office here,” he said.
Eichelgruen said it is especially important to have a presence in the country during Lebanon’s all important summer high season.
Delta has an air-sharing agreement with Air France and KLM enabling them to expand their operations. These agreements help in places such as Lebanon where Delta is unable to fly directly.
The company’s 2007 Chapter 11 bankruptcy represented a challenging period for the airline. But far from ruining the business it allowed Delta to restructure and be better prepared to face the financial turmoil that has hurt airlines more than any other sector.
One year after Delta Airways filed for Chapter 11 it became the largest airline in the world following its purchase of Northwest Airlines for $3.6 billion. Yet up until now Delta had no presence in Beirut, despite the fact many of its American competitors have had a presence in the Lebanese capital for years.