Lebanese civil aviation administration DGAC believes Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport can be restored to near full operational capability within two weeks, as work begins on repairing the damage caused by Israeli air attacks.
Speaking to Flight in Beirut, as a flight by British Airways franchise partner BMed marked the restoration of foreign airline services to the capital, DGAC director general Hamdi Chaouk said that rebuilding had begun just hours after a 14 August ceasefire between Israel and southern Lebanon-based Hezbollah Islamic resistance group took effect.
Chaouk says that a total of 25 bombs struck the airport’s three runways and taxiways, crippling its infrastructure and forcing airlines to abandon the base.
Despite heavy damage at its southern end, runway 16/34 still has 2,000m (6,560ft) of available landing distance. Chaouk says that Lebanese flag-carrier Middle East Airlines used this runway to evacuate its fleet, which was caught on the ground during the initial air assault. MEA subsequently shifted its operation temporarily to Damascus.
But repair efforts are concentrating on runway 17/35 - the older strip which requires landing aircraft to overfly the city, rather than take the over-water approach to 16/34. Chaouk says that this work will be completed in a week.
Beirut’s third runway 03/21 will take a further week to repair, he adds, and then reconstruction teams will turn their attention back to runway 16/34. Says Chaouk: “This runway took a major hit. It will take nearly two months to fix.”
While other parts of the airport were also hit (mainly taxiway A and the fuel system), Chaouk says that the terminal buildings have remained intact. He is confident that the airport will effectively be fully operational within two weeks.
But he is unable to put a figure on the financial costs of the month-long closure. “Nobody has a clue. It’s related to so many factors and we’re still collecting data from the ministries. But it will be millions [of dollars].”
BMed is claiming to be the first airline to restore foreign services to Beirut, after conducting a humanitarian flight yesterday with a view to restoring a normal schedule as early as 21 August.
Flight KJ001 from London Heathrow, operated with an Airbus A321 (G-MEDM), touched down on runway 16, which is damaged at its southern end, but BMed chief pilot Michael Crosby says that some 2,000m of landing distance was still available.
He says that while the shortened runway needs to be taken into account in terms of aircraft performance, serving Beirut does not require any major operational changes. While Israeli authorities - who are maintaining a blockade of the Lebanon - were advised of the flight it was still handled by Lebanese air traffic control.
At least one fuel tank was hit during the Israeli assault on the airport and fuel is arguably BMed’s primary operational concern. Following the aircraft’s arrival at Beirut it was scheduled to depart to Larnaca in Cyprus to uplift additional fuel for the return service today.
“The infrastructure is generally sound except for the fuel tanks,” says Crosby. “It’s mainly an issue of quality checks on delivery systems. They haven’t satisfied airlines on quality of delivery.”
BMed commercial director Jonathan Grisdale is optimistic that the airline will be able to restart normal services from around 21 August. He says: “We have flights in the system from that date which we have not cancelled.”
Although Israeli authorities are maintaining a blockade of the country, Grisdale says that the attention is not focused on restricting passenger flights but on ensuring that cargo capacity is not being used to import arms.
He says that the carrier intends to initially operate a four-weekly service upon its return to Beirut, and will restore its full eight-weekly operation once the airline feels the situation has stabilized.
Beirut was BMed’s first destination when the route was opened in 1994. Grisdale says that the service is important to the carrier but points out that the company felt an obligation to return the commitment shown by its Beirut staff.
BMed chairman Lord Hesketh says: “Throughout the recent difficulties the British Airways sales office in Beirut has remained open, enabling us to rearrange the travel plans for many hundreds of people stranded when the airport closed.”
Middle East Airlines (MEA), which was forced to transfer operations to Damascus after the closure of Beirut, has also operated a flight to its home airport today. Although it arrived ahead of the BMed service, the UK carrier is claiming that the aircraft was simply operated empty and maintains that its own flight was the first to perform a commercial service to the Lebanese capital.
Under a United Nations brokered ceasefire, the 34-day battle between Israeli and Hezbollah forces ended on 14 August.