In Beirut One Air Traffic Controller Works At A Time, Up To 24 Hour Shifts, 96 Hours Per Week

The U.S. has an air traffic control crisis. There aren’t enough controllers, and airlines have had to offer fewer flights in the Northeast. Controllers are overworked, and the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization has mismanaged its technology investments for 20 years. That’s limited air travel capacity, created delays, and compromised safety. This doesn’t get nearly enough attention, outside of specific incidents on specific days when the system breaks down in a dramatic and visible way, as we’ve seen several times this year.

But looking at what’s going on with air traffic control in Beirut, I don’t even know what to say.

They’re facing one of the worst economic crises in the world, with their currency losing almost all of its value and 80% of the country living in poverty. During the pandemic flights to Beirut had to be stopped at night when the runway lights were stolen. A bullet pierced the cabin of a Middle East Arilines plane as it landed there last fall.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency and International Civil Aviation Organisation conducted a “pre-audit” in June, to prepare for next year’s formal Universal Safety Oversight Audit, to give them a chance to rectify problems first. They identified two issues, both problems in the United States, but it’s the details here that are scary.

  • Insufficient air traffic control staffing with overworked controllers
  • Lack of separation between the agency performing air traffic control duties and the agency regulating their performance

But there’s so little air traffic control staffing that they might have to “limited hours” of operation of the Beirut airport. Because they have only 15 air traffic controllers.

“There are currently only 15 certified air controllers, whereas the standard requirement would be 87,” said a source from the Lebanese civil aviation department who requested to stay anonymous.

“Air-traffic controllers have consistently faced a shortage of staff but due to the crisis, which initially resulted in major salary cuts, a number of employees made the decision to leave the country.”

This has led to very long shifts, sometimes reaching 24 hours, with air-traffic controller working five hours at a stretch without any breaks and hitting 72 to 96 hours per week, the source said.

This reporting is insane. It’s coming from an apparently reputable source but almost feels like it can’t be real, except that the nation overall is in such dire straits.

Air traffic controllers are working up to 96 hours per week there and in shifts reaching 24 hours. Instead of having four controllers and a supervisor on each shift, there’s just one controller working at a time with an assistant. And the assistants have a “deficiency in training.”

“Out of the 20, none of them hold the necessary certification to execute their duties. Their training would need at least three to four years, provided we had the training centre,” they said.

There has been talk about bringing in controllers from ICAO as an emergency measure. There are “20 qualified air-traffic controllers who successfully passed the 2018 exam” but “were not being considered for those positions” because of the delicate demographics of the country – they weren’t hired beucase most were Muslim.

Lebanese air traffic controllers are far more overworked than their counterparts in the U.S. But the other major safety complaint is exactly the same as in the U.S.: the entity providing the service (in our case, the FAA) regulates itself. And we’ve seen enough problems here to know that’s not a good idea. Thankfully our shortage of dedicated and talented controllers isn’t nearly as grave as theirs.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “Lebanon” exists on paper only for a long time now. Thanks France for drawing up lines in the sand in the early 20’s that didn’t make any sense demographically or politically.
    Anyone who is familiar with the history of this region knows that the ones who identified themselves as ‘Lebanese’ are the Maronite Christians who literally lived in the mountain range of the Lebanon.
    Then came the French (and British) and pushed like 18 different ethnic groups into one “nation”. Not too different that what they did with Iraq and Syria, just that in Lebanon it’s in the extreme. And not that different than what they did with Jordan – giving a piece of land to the Hashemite family, and suddenly today we have a supposed “Jordanian people” (which never existed in history), and this royal family will face a violent end at some point as well (either by external forces, such as the Iranian regime which wishes to stretch out all through the region, or by the majority “palestinians” that live there together with the other “jordanians”under the rule of the Hashemite family).

  2. Dude26 is right, it was secret agreements during World War 1 to reshape the Middle East and take the oil that led to a lot of today’s problems. Africa isn’t much better, with many of the arbitrary colonial boundaries that threw together disparate people, or divided tribal ones, leading to endless friction. Throw in climate change and perhaps another worldwide depression and it seems questionable how many “Third World” states will be able to withstand the stresses. A future of many Somalia like states is pretty grim, both for the people in them and those whose geopolitical and resource extraction strategies depended on using what were countries here.

  3. I know this lady is angry so I thought I’d share my experience with Frontier. I had reservations to fly my elderly parents from Savannah to Denver many years ago. At that time, Frontier only had one flight a week to and from Savannah to Denver. They cancelled my parents flight (after they had already left for the airport) and their only option was for them to go home and return to the airport a week later to make the flight. Since I had made my plans for their visit this week and not next week and my plans included non cancellable reservations for activities in Colorado AND they had already made one trip to Savannah and had a car parked in a nearby parking lot, we decided to get them another ticket on another airline. Frontier assured me they would pay for the additional ticket costs. The same day tickets on Delta (including a stopover in Atlanta) were over $1200 extra (as I recall) and Frontier issued vouchers for that amount to my parents (even though I paid for them). I talked them into transferring them to me because my parents were elderly and not likely to fly anymore in the next year – if ever. So, even though I never wanted to fly Frontier again, I wound up using them exclusively for the next year or so – until those vouchers were depleted (I think they extended the expiration at least once). Luckily, a Frontier service rep (yes, they used to have those) advised me to get them re-issued in $50 increments because if you didn’t use all of a voucher, you forfeited the rest. I wasted some of my voucher values before I fully understood the use it or lose it “feature” of vouchers. My parents are still alive and I still fly Frontier to visit them because they still have the best nonstop flights to Jacksonville. My parents prefer Savannah because it is easier for them to pick me up there but I make them drive to Jacksonville because if my flight gets cancelled, after I have spent my time and money getting from my home (or theirs) to the airport, I am just not willing to go home and do it all over again on another day. They don’t even have a customer service department now and I can’t imagine going through all of this without being able to reach someone on the phone. I still fly with Frontier but I travel without bags, I book my tickets online and I use the app to get my boarding passes and start tracking the flight status way ahead of time – always expecting delays and being delighted (and suspicious) when there aren’t any. It’s all about setting expections and accepting the limitations of a discount airline.

  4. Lebanon was prosperous from the late 1940s through mid-1970s, prior to their Civil War.

    As recently as the early 2000s they did reasonably well especially in tourism and banking. The 2006 Israel–Hezbollah War was a huge mistake, and the Syrian Civil War created big problems. And so did massive corruption.

    It’s not enough to blame “the 20s” and Western powers ‘carving up oil’ in a ‘secret agreement’. Your theory of Lebanon needs to explain its prosperity that followed and its more recent decline.

  5. So different ethic groups told or forced to live together is a source of friction, discrimination and tension? Sounds awfully familiar and contemporary…

    Also sounds like a small bunch of professionals getting a very technical job done no matter what the (union) rules or circumstances. Or whiny or suing over it. America used to be that way…

  6. I’ve heard air traffic control is one of the most stressful jobs. I can imagine 24 hours of it and 96 hours a week. It sounds dangerous for everyone concerned.

  7. I call bull sh## on this story.
    Gary, read, research and verify before you give us this crap info.

    Shame on you.

    No more respect.

  8. Lebanon no longer exists…it’s a failed 100-years trial. It’s expired, and no system replacement is found which means chaos.

  9. Nonetheless, the beautiful view from the wing as you fly into Beirut airport only hints at what a good visit you’re getting ready to have. The food, the history, the beauty, and the people are unmatched.

    We’ve been, and we are going back again.

  10. Yikes! I flew CAI-BEY,BEY-LCA spring of last year. Thanks to the harbor explosion — which they’re slowly rebuilding from — there was a lot of generator use for electricity. And the currency situation was sadly funny: the government insisted on an exchange rate which was roughly 10x off from reality, and so you had to be careful where you exchanged money. The “black market” rate was more in line with reality, as you could see from store prices.

    It was a great stay, though, and I’m glad I went (and didn’t know about the ATC problems).

  11. I throw the BS flag on this. 2015 numbers for Beirut airport was 68,000 ops for the year. That is US ATCT level 5 type traffic. 15 controllers would be a dream for level 5 facilities in the US.

    With 15 controllers working a 5 day work week, that would put 4 people on regular days off each day. That leaves 11 to walk in the door each day. Assuming you have 3 positions, a four person crew per day/swing shift would be normal, and 3 on the mid would be sufficient. You could easily operate that tower with the Union/FAA’s work rules.

    Furthermore, the 3 positions would be Local Control “Tower”, Ground Control, and Flight Data/Clearance Delivery. The Data/Clearance position can easily be handled by an “Assistant” as they call it.

  12. Taco says:
    August 23, 2023 at 8:44 pm
    I throw the BS flag on this. 2015 numbers for Beirut airport was 68,000 ops for the year. That is US ATCT level 5 type traffic. 15 controllers would be a dream for level 5 facilities in the US.

    The 15 includes Approach Radar.

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