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French Version

MEA continues slow climb back to normal schedule

Lebanon's national air carrier said Monday that it was working hard to resume more of its regular flight schedule as conditions improve after the reopening of Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport on August 17. "We are operating at less than 50 percent compared with business last year," Middle East Airlines chairman Mohammad Hout told The Daily Star.

"We are operating to all destinations that we go to but not with the frequency we used to. For example we have one daily flight to Paris instead of two."

Public Works and Transport Minister Mohammad Safadi said earlier that the airport would be fully operational this week, once all the runways hit by Israeli warplanes were repaired.

MEA flies direct to 15 destinations on three continents: Abidjan, Accra, Amman, Cairo, Dammam, Dubai, Frankfurt, Jeddah, Kano, Kuwait City, Lagos, Larnaca, London, Paris, and Riyadh. On Monday, four flights left from Beirut - bound for Cairo, Dubai, Kuwait City and Paris - but each landed for a 50-minute layover in Amman before heading for its final destination.

The Reuters news agency quoted a "senior industry source" as saying the layovers were the result of an Israeli demand that security checks be performed in Jordan. When asked asked why the planes were stopping in Amman, Hout said the airline was following orders issued by Lebanese Civil Aviation authorities. Asked if these were the product of Israeli pressure, he told The Daily Star: "I don't know. Maybe."

Hout would not comment on the extent of MEA's losses from the 34-day war, but he did say that the carrier had no plans to increase its fares.

MEA was one of the companies that had been pinning their hopes on a very good tourist season this year as officials from the Tourism Ministry projected more than 1.6 million visitors to come this summer.

Hout said the reduced schedule had more to do with decreased demand for travel to Lebanon than the company's ability to fly. After storing MEA planes in Amman and Damascus during the conflict, all planes have returned to Beirut and MEA is hoping to expand their routes further as time goes by.

"I don't think there is demand to fly to Beirut. However this all depends on the future," Hout said. "If it is stable, it will be easy, although it will take some time to regain full operation. If it is not stable there will not be a demand and we will not increase our routes."

On Tuesday, MEA expects eight planes to depart from Beirut and hopes that even more will fly in the coming days. Before the war broke out, more than 36 foreign airlines used the airport. As of Monday, British Airways, Emirates and Gulf Airways has announced plans to resume service.

Beirut 22-08-2006
Iman Azzi
The Daily Star

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