Survival of the fittest

Despite the devastating impact of Israeli military action on Lebanon’s tourism industry, the country’s flag carrier, Middle East Airlines is adamant the airline and inbound travel will recover rapidly now that a ceasefire is in place

  • E-Mail
By  Gemma Hornett Published  September 1, 2006

|~|News-Analysis-large.gif|~|Beirut’s Rafiq al Hariri International Airport has been closed since Israeli forces bombed the runways.|~|You cannot help but admire the resolve of the Lebanese tourism industry in the face of adversity.

“The moment the ceasefire is announced and the airport reopens, there will be an influx of people to Lebanon. I don’t see any reason why we can’t get back to normal and be profitable this year,” Elias Awad, manager UAE, Middle East Airlines (MEA), said in early August.

“We are accustomed to situations like this. We always have contingency plans and we always know what to do.”

Four of the airline’s nine aircraft were on the tarmac at Beirut’s Rafiq al Hariri International Airport when the first Israeli forces bombs hit back on July 12.

Within three days, the entire fleet was relocated to either Damascus in Syria, Amman in Jordan, or Larnaca in Cyprus and the flight schedule was adjusted accordingly, taking into account the need to fly both tourists and Lebanese evacuees to places of safety.

“We were caught off guard. These people had to leave, but with sea and air blockages, the only exit point was through Syria. We were stuck first with a huge number of passengers in Lebanon,” explains Awad.

“Fortunately there was no damage to aircraft and we started immediate operations in Syria as soon as we could get our aircraft there. Now we have started regular operations from Damascas and Larnaca and we work out schedules on a weekly basis.”

When ATN interviewed Awad, MEA was operating regional flights to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam.

Daily services to London, Paris and Frankfurt were also in operation, but key holiday destinations such as Istanbul and Athens had been dropped. Weekly flights to Lagos, Accra and Kano in Nigeria were also in service.

All reservations systems were up-and-running, aircraft maintenance was being carried out in Damascus and Larnaca, and MEA claimed fuel supplies were plentiful.||**|||~|MEA-large.gif|~|Elias Awad: it’s business as usual at MEA’s Dubai reservation office, despite the chaos caused by Israel’s military offensive.|~|Charter flights carrying evacuees had operated to destinations as far afield as Australia and at the of time press, the evacuation process remained ongoing, with more than 80% of MEA’s business outbound from its
temporary hubs.

However, Awad is aware that in time, if the conflict is not resolved, there will be very few evacuees left to transport, effectively severing MEA’s current lifeline.

“The basic requirement is to keep our aircraft off the ground,” he says. “Keeping aircraft grounded doesn’t mean you’re running out of money, but it does mean your pilots will need training again if their licenses expire.”

The answer, he says, is to make use of MEA’s young fleet: “We will concentrate on leasing and chartering our aircraft, some of which are brand new. We will continue serving our major destinations from Cyprus and Syria. Even with the blockade people still want to go in and out of Lebanon.”

Awad is also adamant MEA will not cancel its order for three additional aircraft; one 250-passenger A330 and two 150-passenger A321s, although delivery dates are yet to be confirmed. MEA currently operates three A330s and six A321s.
For the first five months of 2006 (January to May), MEA witnessed 30% growth for the UAE (Dubai and Abu Dhabi), compared to the same period the previous year. The figure for Dubai alone was 23%.

“Every year the airline has improved and we were expecting 20% growth [across the board] by the end of the year,” Awad explains. “Now we don’t know what the [financial] situation will be, but I think we will be profitable if things resume to normal quite quickly.”

MEA’s leisure division, MEA Holidays, which specialises in inbound travel to Lebanon and outbound travel to the Middle East and Mediterranean, has felt the brunt of the conflict more forcefully than the airline.

“Lebanon was full [at the time hostilities broke out]. Some of our biggest [inbound source] markets were Dubai, Kuwait, Europe and even the US. There were 35,000 Canadians and 40,000 UAE residents visiting Lebanon. We also had Lebanese people booked to Greece, Turkey and Italy,” explains Awad.

“But when the trouble started, the masses just cancelled. MEA Holidays was forced to suspend all operations.”

According to the Lebanese government, around1.6 million arrivals were expected in Lebanon this summer and on the first day of the attack, hotel occupancies nationwide had hit the 92% mark and were set to rise.

Jad Shamseddin, sales and marketing manager, The Four Points Sheraton Verdun, was expecting a “unique season” with occupancy on track for 100% until September 12.

The Lebanese government’s most recent statements claim Israeli military action has caused and estimated US $5 billion worth of damage to Lebanon’s infrastructure.

“We need this infrastructure for tourism because when they come back, tourists will need those roads and bridges,” says Awad. “But at least we now have the technology to resolve these issues and Lebanon has survived worse situations.”

The embodiment of Lebanon’s true indomitable spirit, Awad explains in simple terms why Lebanon’s tourism industry will never be obliterated, no matter how many bombs or missiles are thrown its way: “Lebanon was off limits for 15 years, but we got our act together and very soon after it was vibrant again. Visitors to Lebanon are not one-time visitors. They want to come back. No one can steal our weather, our scenery or our culture.” ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code