In contrast to the rebellious background of the interior, Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport (OLBA) is a paragon of order and efficiency, rated as one of the best-run major airports in the world. Furthermore, unlike most major international airports, OLBA courts business and general aviation, with designated parking (and plenty of it) and a cluster of FBOs and on-site CIQ in a general aviation terminal.
Pilots we talked to universally praised the professionalism of Lebanese ATC, the quality of the airport and the high level of service they received, among the best anywhere in Europe or the U.S.
“So what's to be worried about?” asked Craig Hanlon, chief pilot, G550, for DuPont in Wilmington, Del., who's been into Beirut. “And here's where you should consult your corporate security. Hezbollah, which is both a political party and terrorist organization, has two seats on the ruling body of Lebanon. So Lebanon strikes me as a place you have to pay attention to, and if there's no trouble going on, it's a great place to go.”
Just how much of a threat to visiting Western businesspersons is Hezbollah or any of the other terrorist organizations that roam the interior of Lebanon? Phares responded that this was “a very difficult and complex question to answer. On the one hand, Hezbollah doesn't want to appear as a 'terrorist' organization going after Westerners. Although the group has been declared a terrorist organization by the U.S., U.K., Canada, the Netherlands and Australia — and may be by the EU in the near future — it struggles to appear tolerant of 'business activities' and wishes to appear as 'protector' of them.
“The reality,” Phares continued, “is that Hezbollah can at any time target these business activities if Iran decides that it should do so. Thus, Western businesspersons in Lebanon are at the mercy of Hezbollah's will. As far as the Jihadi groups, most are busy fighting the Assad regime in Syria. However, as in Benghazi, some could turn against U.S. or Western targets any time they decide to.”
The war and security situations aside, both in neighboring countries and inside Lebanon, Phares believes, “it would be considered safe for all civil aviation to operate within the Lebanese airspace system. But again, the country's good record on aviation management has to be contrasted with the shaky security situation that continues to develop. The main problem for all commercial and business air traffic is not safety issues, which can be found in many other countries in Africa, Latin America, or even Russia. The potential direct threat to general aviation in Lebanon is the multiple armed factions able to disrupt business aviation operations and menace planes, pilots and passengers.”
To Go or Not to Go
We pushed a little further: Is there a “manpad” (man-portable air defense system, or shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile) or other ground fire risk? “There are manpad units in Lebanon,” Phares claimed. “Hezbollah owns many of these weapons and has used them against the Israelis. Al Qaeda's Jihadists also may have a few, obtained from Syrian and Libyan militias. It is well known that Hezbollah is in total control of Beirut Airport and vicinity, as well as considerable parts of the Lebanese airspace system.
“The vicinity of Beirut Airport includes critical and danger zones from which it would be easy to target civil aircraft following the established approach and departure paths. But ironically, Hezbollah will not allow any other terrorist group to infiltrate the zones lying under its control. Hezbollah won't use these missiles against civilian aviation for fear of massive international retaliation. But there is no guarantee that in the case of a clash with the U.S., the Iranian-funded group would not retaliate against U.S. civilian targets.”
As for ground fire risk, “Hezbollah also is in total control of all points from which ground fire is possible around Beirut International Airport. In conclusion, as long as Hezbollah has no interest for now in any security destabilization at the airport, landing and taking off from the airfield can be considered safe.”