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After consecutive years of growth, Beirut Airport finally back on pre-war track

VIP terminal and other projects expected to revitalize the sector

In case any doubts remain, Beirut International Airport has officially made its comeback from the civil war, welcoming more arrivals in 2003 than any other year in its history. And with continued record growth projected this year, and a dizzying number of new projects planned for the coming weeks and months, 2004 could prove even more pivotal.

Hamdi Chouk, Lebanon's civil aviation chief, says a series of sweeping new reforms are expected to catapult the recently completed facility "into the next era."

An unprecedented drive for deregulation, enhanced relations with the European Union, and a horde of investment opportunities emerging from the opening of a VIP jet terminal - expected to be the only one of its kind in the Middle East - are just some developments that could easily boost activity and profits to levels not witnessed since the height of the local industry's heyday in the 1970s.

"This is a very, very important year for civil aviation," Chouk said during an interview with The Daily Star. "For the first time, we might see 25 aircraft at all 25 gates at the same time," he added, projecting at least a 20 percent jump in traffic over last year.

The former NASA researcher and pilot says he's "very optimistic" about making critical progress toward the airport's 20-year modernization plan, which includes an elaborate cargo village and state of the art private jet hangar facility. In the coming months, Chouk says Parliament will finally be willing to grant the airport its longstanding demand for financial and administrative autonomy, a trend sweeping the industry worldwide.

This will mean more efficiency, profitability and the historic cancellation of the director-general's office - called for by a 2002 government decree which will replace it with two all-new entities: the Lebanese Civil Aviation Authority, which will serve an independent regulatory and policy-making agency; and the Beirut Airport Corporation, which will handle day-to-day operations.

"This is the wave of the future ... when we achieve these reforms, we can fly, as they say, 'supersonic' into our goals; but now we are locked by the system of government, where it takes 50 to 60 signatures to approve just one new service."

Red tape aside, signs of post-war openness have been more visible ever since 1998, when the first stage of $430 million facility was inaugurated. Passenger traffic was up by 20 percent last year, when the number of airlines coming to Beirut jumped from 35 to 54, airport revenue climbed from $70 to $90 million and private charter traffic soared by 140 percent over 2001.

Chouk attributes recent gains to the "open skies" policy, which was implemented in 2002 to lift restrictions on incoming passengers and aircraft. "It has put us on a world map in terms of being a country with a system that is liberal and open toward deregulation ... and it has led Europe to consider Lebanon as the number one country in the region to renegotiate bilateral agreements."

As first choice on the expanded EU's renegotiation agenda for treaties with Middle Eastern airports, Lebanon and MEA are likely to benefit from priority access to Europe, including a possible one stop security check system - a breakthrough that would alleviate baggage delays and increase regional competitiveness.

And thanks to "completely new safety and security measures," the International Civil Aviation Organization - a global authority on airport safety and security - issued a "very positive report" on Lebanon in 2003.

However, pressing security challenges remain - namely a swath of illegal refugee housing currently sandwiched between two of the airport's runways.

Removing the housing would cost some $30 million in compensation fees, Chouk explains, explaining that the airport is currently manned by five separate security services.

Additional measures were also taken after last year's crash of the Beirut-bound, Lebanese-owned UTA flight that killed over 100 people.

In light of that disaster, Lebanon now joins the US and England in imposing a "stop list" barring deficient airliners from entering Beirut.

The first country in the Middle East to implement such a list, Lebanon has already banned five carriers from African and Eastern European states, according to Chouk.

Although local security authorities are currently working with British and American officials, direct travel from US to Beirut and vice versa is still prohibited - "a political, not a technical issue," he says, which could also be resolved this year.

But perhaps the most glamorous of this year's developments is the imminent completion a 120,000 square meter private jet terminal, with eight VIP lounges and 12 hangars, a regionally unparalleled project worth some $33 million. The de facto private airport is expected to spawn a new industry catering to private jet traffic, which now accounts for almost one quarter of airport activity.

The new terminal is projected to create nearly 2000 new jobs, with Beirut enjoying a geographic advantage to capitalize on the sector.

"Not only will we be attracting people from the Gulf, but also clients from Turkey, North Africa and Southern Europe, because there is no one-stop VIP terminal to cater for all the requirements and needs of small VIP and charter aircraft."

In addition to a stint at NASA's research facility in Langley, Virginia, Chouk spent 18 years with the Australian defense ministry, and also worked for McDonnell Douglas. He now heads the Middle East's only aeronautical engineering department at Balamand University in North Lebanon.

"To tell you the truth, I'm very happy... it gives me great pleasure to be part of the rebuilding process of my country."

Beirut,05 10 2004
Habib Battah
The Daily Star
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