Lebanon’s Airport Attempts to Appease America
By: Mouhamad Wehbe
Published Saturday, October 13, 2012
On Friday, Maura Connelly, the US Ambassador to Lebanon, made an unusual visit to the offices of the Middle East Airlines (MEA), the Lebanese national carrier.
Connelly’s visit had not been declared in advance, and for reasons that are not clear, the media was not informed.
Observers surmise that this may have been a security precaution. The diplomat, accompanied by a security team, toured the carrier’s facilities, hangars and operations center, where they were briefed on sensitive matters that they are not entitled to know about.
Connelly’s visit to MEA’s offices was yet another breach of diplomatic norms in Lebanon. It also coincided with the incident that has preoccupied the Israelis over the past few days, involving Hezbollah’s drone “Ayoub” which flew over occupied Palestine for some time before it was downed by the Israeli air force.
Nevertheless, observers believe the timing of the visit was not chosen deliberately to coincide with the incident, since it was determined in advance. However, they said, the Americans exploited this to send a security team with the ambassador, rather than a delegation of economic experts.
At any rate, the visit is the result of efforts by the Minister of Public Works and Transport Ghazi al-Aridi, and CEO and General Manager of MEA, Mohamad al-Hout. These two officials were in Washington around 10 days earlier, where they met with officials from the US Department of Transportation (DoT).
Aridi and Hout requested the resumption of air transport relations between Lebanon and the United States. One expert familiar with the issue said, “Hout went seeking US recognition of Beirut Airport’s ability, and the adequacy of its safety standards, to receive American airplanes and fly MEA planes to the United States.”
There has been an American ban on MEA since the hijacking of a TWA American passenger plane at Beirut Airport in 1985. Following this incident, the airport was put on the US terror list. MEA flights were banned from US airports and American airliners no longer flew to the airport in Lebanon.
The expert revealed that Hout took detailed files on MEA and Beirut airport to the DoT in America, including information on public safety standards at the airport, the technology used in this regard, as well as current capabilities and other related information. The DoT officials were satisfied with the information Aridi and Hout provided about the Lebanese carrier and the airport.
Nevertheless, the Americans had several conditions for the resumption of air transport relations. A list of their requirements was put forward, in order to help Beirut airport conform to US public safety standards and for MEA flights to be approved and received in the US. MEA has joined the global airline alliance SkyTeam, and enforces the safety standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Hout returned immediately to Lebanon after the visit, to discuss the demands with the acting director general of the Civil Aviation Authority. The two men then agreed on the need to do whatever it takes to fulfill the conditions and standards of “American public safety” at the airport in Beirut.
Hout’s efforts to appease the Americans did not stop here; he decided to take additional steps. Hout invited the ambassador to visit the MEA offices and examine firsthand the operations and standards at Beirut International Airport, in preparation for resuming direct flights between Lebanon and the United States. This happened at a private dinner attended by Connelly and several Lebanese figures including Riad Salameh, the Governor of the Bank of Lebanon, which owns a majority stake in the airline and supervises its board and CEO.
This is how it was decided that Connelly would visit MEA’s facilities, nearly a week ago. On Friday morning, Connelly came in a convoy of six SUVs to the MEA headquarters. A US delegation came with her, which Hout claimed to his associates was an economic team seeking to assess the financial feasibility of resuming flights between Lebanon and the United States.
For about an hour, Hout held a meeting in his office at the company's headquarters with Connelly and the delegation accompanying her. Afterwards, Hout took Connelly and the delegation on an inspection tour of the airline facilities, with a focus on the security operations at Beirut airport.
It soon became obvious to MEA staff and specialists that the delegation was not of an economic nature, and that its concerns were mostly about security, essentially concerning removing Beirut International Airport from the US terror list.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.