Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport (RHIA) is still reeling from last year’s war between Israel and Hizbullah, with passenger numbers down and some $19 million needed for a second radar and upgrade communications and security systems.
During the month-long conflict RHIA was hit by 24 air strikes to the runways and three fuel tanks, costing the airport an estimated $8 million in damages. In the year since, Lebanon has struggled to get back on its feet amid political instability and a deteriorating security situation that has seen tourist numbers plunge.
According to the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism, the number of visitors dropped from 630,804 between January and June in 2006, to 412,041 in the same period this year. Passenger traffic for September this year was higher than last at 317,142 compared to 215,185, but significantly down from September 2005’s 355,959 passengers.
The airport has resultantly seen a 20-25% drop in passengers compared to last year, with only half of the six-million-passengers-a-year facility being used, the East wing.
“We see empty aircraft sometimes,” said Hamdi Chaouk, Director General of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the country’s aviation operator and regulator. “Most passengers, if not all, are Lebanese,” he added.
Chaouk also said that the airport’s shops, cafes and restaurants — many recent additions to the facility — had felt the brunt of the downturn. “They are not doing very well,” he conceded.
Political instability is not only affecting the airport’s earnings, it has impacted on the CAA’s 20-year plan to upgrade RHIA, turn the inactive Iaat airport in the Bekaa valley into a cargo and charter hub, and turn Rayak airport in the center of the country into a training and private jet facility.
Waiting for stability
“All ideas are on hold until the government is stable again, as all this requires stability, so there is no investment,” said Chaouk, adding that RHIA is to be expanded to handle 16 million passengers by 2035. “More expansion, more development as time goes by,” he said. “The airport is just waiting for more passengers, but every six months something seems to happen.”
In the immediate term however, RHIA is struggling to raise an estimated $19 million that is needed to acquire a second radar, security equipment and communications technology.
“Only one radar in Lebanon is used for approach to the Beirut airport,” said Amin Jaber, maintenance director for Radar Navigation Aids and of Technology Systems at the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), a recently established autonomous civil aviation regulator that will eventually compliment the CAA, which is slated for privatization.
“This radar’s location is not giving us proper coverage of Lebanese air space, there are gaps, and there is no back-up radar in case of failure. This is very important for us to rectify. For this reason, we need a second radar in another place, at the top of a mountain at Baysour,” he added.
The current radar, manufactured by Raytheon, is over 10 years old and covers a radius of 250 miles. Jaber said this radar also needs to be upgraded, to a Mode-S Secondary Surveillance Radar.
The second radar, which has been put up for tender and is slated to cost $3.5 million, will overlap areas of the existing radar. “With two radars we can cover most of the Lebanese airspace, so we can provide this information to the [planned upgrades of the] airports at Iaat and Rayak,” said Jaber.
“We are also looking to exchange radar information with our neighbors, such as Syria and Cyprus, who we are working closely with us for this to happen soon,” he added. However, discussions with Syria are being hampered by the strained diplomatic relations between Beirut and Damascus following Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005.
With security systems getting more advanced, Beirut needs to upgrade its current systems in line with IAA, European Union, and US regulations, said Chaouk. He added that international security organizations, “from the US to the UK, to Italy and Germany,” have toured and audited the airport following the war to check security, particularly in regard to the possibility of arms being smuggled in to supply Hizbullah.
“No airport in the world has been audited so much,” said Chaouk. “All reports show RHIA is a secure, safe airport. Since the July conflict, we have not faced any security threat and hope it doesn’t happen,” he added. However, the airport was forced to close for a day in February when opposition political parties organized a nationwide strike, shutting down main roads and the entrance to the airport.
Jaber said some $15 million is needed to upgrade the security systems.
“We need more security systems — new CCTV equipment, extra cameras, and recording technology — it was analog, now moving to digital. We also need to upgrade some X-ray machines and mobile systems,” he said.
The Council for Development and Reconstruction is to carry out a study through consultancy firm Dar Al Handasah to decide on what security equipment needs to be upgraded and replaced.
“If we can’t get [funding for] the equipment in one package, we will do it in phases,” he said. Funding is being impeded by the $8 million outlay that was required to fix the airport following the war last year in addition to a lack of public funds due to Lebanon’s chronic debt, estimated at over $41 billion.
Internal communications systems also need to be improved, estimated to cost some $500,000, and there is a need for baggage reconciliation systems at the airport to be improved in line with European authorities minimal standards.
Meanwhile, the US government earlier in the year overturned a ruling that banned American aircraft from flying to Beirut, which was put in place in the early 1980s following a spate of hijackings. However, no American commercial airliners have resumed services as the move was attributed to allowing US military planes to land to supply equipment to Lebanon’s armed forces during its 106-day fight against Islamist militants in the north of the country.