Al mashriq - The Levant

Notes on the history of airtravel in Lebanon

(These notes have been collected from the WWW in November 2003. References to the location of the original material are given at the end of each note.- Børre Ludvigsen)

Beirut International Airport IATA Airport Code BEY

BIA is located in the Khaldeh suburb south of the capital and around 8kms distant from Beirut downtown. It was opened in 1954 and is the only civil airport in the country. The old airport was renovated in 1977, and the present runways were rehabilitated between 1982 and 1984. The Israeli invasion of 1982 caused considerable damage to most sections of the old terminal building. The area covered by BIA is around 7 million square meters. Used by 38 airlines. Passenger movement 1998: 2060020 1999: 2222344. Aircraft movement 1999: 27878. (From


Wassim Chemaitelli

Beirut had to wait until 1938 before it had its own airport. Air services to Lebanon did exist before that date, but depended on the use of seaplanes. The most famous regular air service of that kind was Air Orient's route from France to Indochina. The service became scheduled in 1931. The trip took 7 days, it started in Marseille and ended in Saigon with intermediate stops in Naples (Italy), Kerkyra (Corfu) and Athens in Greece, Castellorosso (Rhodes, administered then by Italy), Beirut and Damascus (under French mandate), Baghdad in Iraq, Bushehr and Jask in Persia, Karachi, Jodhpur, Allahabad and Calcutta in British Crown Colony India, Akyab and Rangoon in Burma and Bangkok, Siam. The first leg from Marseille to Beirut was flown using CAMS 54 seaplanes. Passengers were disembarked at the Minet El Hosn/St Georges Bay wharf in Beirut and continued their journey overland to Damascus from where they caught another plane which flew them eastwards. The journey involved multiple stops and aircraft changes but represented a true revolution in the history of French civil aviation, and gained increasing importance in improving communications whithin the French empire. The route, as well as the sea horse logo (originally designed for Air Orient) were inherited by Air France the carrier which resulted from the merger of all French airlines in 1933.

Tensions in Europe made the route unsafe as of mid-1938. The Italians, who were engaged in an alliance with the German Third Reich, controled the Dodecanese archipelago, including Rhodes, an important stop just before the last stretch to Beirut. Air France had anyway already decided to stop using seaplanes, as it became possible to operate the whole journey from France to Indochina using a single airliner, the Dewoitine 338, by diverting the route southwards towards Tunis, Tripoli (Libya), Benghazi and Alexandria before arriving at Damascus.

During the mandate , the French authorities had engaged in the extension of Beirut's harbour. The consequent works required the use of large quantities of sand, most of which were taken from dunes south of Beirut. This had the effect of reducing these dunes, and of levelling the terrain in this region. The site (which until then was difficult to define because of Beirut's peculiar geological features) for the long awaited airport was thus finally found : Bir Hassan region, south of the city where the dunes stood. Construction works started in 1936 and were completed in 1938.

Beirut Airport's success was immediate, and became part of the ambitious routes of pioneer airlines, like the Warsaw-Teheran route flown by LOT-Polish Airlines and the Berlin-Teheran route of the Deutshe Luft Hansa. Air France re-routed its Indochina service, extended to Hanoi via Beirut. There were days were operations exceeded 30 airliner movements a day, much more than what was initially planned by the mandate authorities. All this came to a brutal stop when World War II erupted in Europe in 1939 involving France, the mandatory power in Lebanon and Syria, in a long and difficult struggle against the German Third Reich.

As Lebanon gained its independence from France in 1943, Beirut Airport became an important part of the young country's communication system. It became the home base of the country's airlines, Middle East Airlines (MEA) and Air Liban, both founded in 1945. As Lebanon's economy expanded, there was a need for a larger and more modern airport. Khaldˇ, further south of Bir Hassan, 9 Kms from the capital on the Beirut-Saida road was chosen as the site for what was to become the region's biggest and most modern airport. BEY was inaugurated in 1954.

Beirut International Airport (BEY) rapidly became the Middle Eastern hub for air transport. Lebanon's liberal economy and strategic position attracted business from around the world. Its cultural heritage and the hospitality of its people attracted tourists mostly from Europe and the Arab World. BEY was thus the Middle Eastern airport most international airlines included first in their route network system. The fifties were consolidation years, as BEY was moreover the hub of no less than 4 Lebanese airlines : MEA, Air Liban, Trans Mediterranean Airlines (TMA) and Lebanese International Airways (LIA).

(From with pictures of both the Bir Hassan and Khalde terminals.)

Middle East Airlines

Middle East Airlines (MEA) was established in 1945. The Lebanon based airline launched its very first service routes between Beirut and the neighbouring cities of Syria, Cyprus and Egypt. It wasn't long before the company also established regular passenger service to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other important destinations in the Gulf. In 1963, the merge with Air Liban allowed MEA to add even more new European and Middle East destinations to its worldwide programme, including service to principle towns and cities in Western Africa.

Despite regular closure of the Beirut International Airport during Lebanon's civil war between 1973 and 1990, the company managed to survive, renting out aeroplanes and staff to other international carriers. With the return to normality in 1990, MEA not only succeeded in re-establishing service to all its previous destinations, but also strengthened and improved its network to Europe, the Middle East and the Gulf.. (From

Middle East Airlines

As the French mandate over Lebanon ended on November 22nd 1943, a reliable and modern transportation system was vital for the development of the young republic's economy. On May 31st 1945, Saeb Salaam and Fawzi Hoss founded Middle East Airlineswith a capital of 1 million Lebanese pounds (LL). The airline was initially based in Beirut's old Bir Hassan Airfield. Technical assistance was provided by British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), the United Kingdom's international airline. MEA's first flight took place on November 30th 1945 between Beirut and Nicosia, Cyprus. Scheduled flights were initiated in January 1946, and MEA's network quickly expanded to include Aleppo and Damascus in Syria, Haifa and Lydda in Palestine, Nicosia, Cyprus and Cairo, Egypt, followed later on in 1946 by Baghdad, Iraq and Amman, Transjordan.

Profitable Hadji pilgrimage flights to Jeddah. In 1947, MEA was the first airline to fly to Kuwait pioneering thus regular service to the Gulf region. Ankara and Istanbul became MEA destinations in 1947, and a seasonal Beirut-Athens-Rome-Marseille service was initiated during the summer of that year. In 1948, the first Arab-Israeli war over Palestine led to the disruption of the Haifa and Lydda services. The need for more DC-3 aircraft led MEA towards an alliance with Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) in late 1949. Pan Am took-over 36% of MEA's shares, and MEA received 3 DC-3s from Pan Am's European fleet, and was appointed as Pan Am's sales agent throughout the Middle East.Traffic rights between the USA and most of the Middle East (Egypt, Palestine, Transjordan, Hedjaz, The Gulf) were exclusively detained by Trans World Airlines (TWA), Pan Am's rival. By connecting its network to that of MEA in Beirut, Pan Am regained access to these markets and broke TWA's monopoly in the region.

During these first years, MEA grew steadily and made profits despite the turbulent political climate of the region. MEA was also already facing harsh competition in its very own home base. Another Lebanese airline called Compagnie Gˇnˇrale des Transports (C.G.T) had been created in 1945, shortly after MEA, with the assistance of Air France (which initially owned 60% of the airline's shares). C.G.T., who was to be known later on as Air Liban operated from Beirut to Cairo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Damascus and Aleppo. Strongly backed by Air France, Air Liban, whose operating costs were greater than MEA's, was a fierce competitor. Furthermore, the distribution of traffic rights between the two airlines was a delicate issue with political ramifications. The airline industry at that point mirrored Lebanon's socio-cultural tendencies, with rival French and Anglo-American backed protagonists.

Oil revenues soared in the Arabian-Persian Gulf region, which had a very basic service infrastructure. While political instability plagued Syria and Iraq, Palestine's division led to a significant decline in its role in the region's economy. All these factors directed the cash flow towards Beirut, which traditional role as the Near East's main harbour and financial center gained momentum. The local and regional air transport industry thus had great perspectives for further expansion. MEA had an additional, and highly significant asset. Sheikh Najib Alamuddin, was appointed as MEA's chairman in 1951 as Saeb Salaam got increasingly involved in local politics. Mr Alamuddin's vision, integrity and dedicated work, together with the efforts of MEA's staff were to lead the airline towards a golden age of great expansion.

The early fifties witnessed the inauguration of Beirut International Airport (BEY) in Khaldeh, south of Beirut. The first aircraft to land at BEY was an MEA plane piloted by Fawzi Hoss. MEA's regional network expanded to include Bahrain, Doha and Jerusalem in 1951. However, new equipment was badly needed for planned European routes, and in order to increase the offered capacity on the regional routes. A notorious conflict between the airline's co-founders, Saeb Salaam and Fawzi Hoss on MEA's shares distribution had negative repercussions on the airline. Fawzi Hoss, despite his crucial role, was to leave the airline in the early fifties. Saeb Salaam also clashed with Pan Am regarding the distribution of the airline's benefits. Mr Salaam insisted that these should be redistributed among the shareholders, Pan Am insisted on using them for the airline's expansion program, even if they were far from sufficient. Both parties stuck to their positions, and finally , in March 1955, Pan Am withdrew from MEA and sold back its assets to Saeb Salaam. In the meantime, MEA was negociating the renewal of its partnership with BOAC. Thus, BOAC acquired a majority stake in MEA, and the latter was able to initiate its expansion program with the delivery of 3 Vickers Viscounts in October 1955.With these aircraft MEA started its first scheduled European service, Beirut-Athens-Rome on November 25th 1955.

1959-1974:The airline's relations with BOAC were paradoxically entering a difficult phase in this period. A special division organizing BOAC's participation in other airlines (BOAC-AC) had been formed in 1959. BOAC-AC was highly critical of MEA's 1958 losses, and also considered MASCO as a costly and hazardous enterprise that competed with the maintenance services proposed in the UK to client airlines in the Middle East. MEA bought MASCO from BOAC, and on August 16th 1961, BOAC sold its shares in MEA to Intra Bank, Lebanon's most powerful financial group of the time, headed by the famous tycoon, Yousif Bedas. Thus MEA broke free of BOAC-AC's restrictions and continued its expansion. Profits soared in 1962 as MEA carried its millionth passenger.

Air Liban's position was in sharp contrast to that of MEA. As Air Liban enjoyed Air France's unlimited support, it was less profit-conscious. Its Lebanese shareholders enjoyed unrealistic privileges, unscathed by the airline's recurrent losses. Air France was eager to find a solution to this situation, and started negociations with MEA. These talks resulted in the merger of MEA and Air Liban on June 7th 1963, to form Middle East Airlines - Air Liban (MEA). Air France was to keep a 30% stake in the airline, most of the remainder being held by Intra Bank. Thus, MEA became an Air France associate. MEA combined the networks of its parent airlines, inheriting Air Liban's routes to Abidjan and Accra in West Africa as well as the lucrative Beirut-Paris route.

October 1966 witnessed the collapse of Intra Bank, which sent shockwaves throughout the whole Lebanese banking system. The origin and circumstances of Intra's fall (one of pre-war Lebanon's darkest financial episodes) are to this day controversial issues. Yousif Bedas' Palestinian origin, the bank's impressive expansion worldwide, its solid implementation in Palestinian territories administered by Jordan (before they fell under Israeli occupation as a result of Jordan's defeat during the six days war), and the surprizingly weak support the Lebanese government gave Bedas led many analysts towards conspiracy theories. In his book, Sheikh Alamuddin refered to Intra's fall as "the murder of a bank". Intra held around 65% of MEA's shares, and the bank's collapse came as a threat to MEA's future. However, the bank's assets were reorganized by the Lebanese government. The latter supported the creation of the Intra Investment Company in which the Banque du Liban, Lebanon's central bank, had a 10.6% stake.

LIA attempted to take-over MEA during the unstable period of Intra's fall, without success. The Arab Israeli six days war in June 1967 disrupted MEA's operations for about two weeks, and led to the suspension of flights to Jerusalem. However, MEA was quickly able to resume all other services, and flights to Abu Dhabi were started in September 1967. By the end of 1967, MEA had transported 442000 passengers, with a slight increase compared to 1966 figures. In 1967, a rapprochement policy began between MEA and LIA, and should have led ultimately to the merger between the two airlines. In the meantime, most flights were operated on code-share basis, and the airlines published common flight schedules as of the summer of 1967.

During the night of the 28th to the 29th of December 1968, Israeli commandos attacked by surprise Beirut's International Airport, destroying 14 civilian aircraft, in order to revenge the attack perpetrated in Athens on an El-Al plane by Palestinian activists, in which an Israeli passenger was killed. The UN security council condemned Israel for its attack on Lebanese civilian installations, and airlines worldwide offered their help. MEA, who had lost two thirds of its fleet, resumed operations with the remaining 4 aircraft less than 11 hours after the raid, combining destinations and optimizing schedules. MEA's staff worked overtime, in an unpreceded effort to save the airline.The destroyed fleet was quickly replaced with leased aircraft. MEA quickly endorsed the insurance compensation, and took advantage of the situation in order to increase its capital and homogenize its fleet by ordering exclusively Boeing 707s and 720s. This move greatly cut operating costs. LIA was less fortunate, as it was declared bankrupt shortly after the Israeli raid, and MEA took-over its traffic rights and some of its staff. In exchange, the Lebanese government gave MEA the exclusive rights for passenger air transport until 1989 (consequently renewed until 2012). TMA quickly recovered and continued its conquest of the world's air cargo markets.

In 1974, 5% of MEA's shares were bought by its employees, a highly symbolic move as the dedication of MEA's staff became legendary. In 1974, MEA's profits rose to 36 Million LL, in spite of the growing tensions on the political scene.

On December 2nd 1977, Sheikh Najib Alamuddin resigned from MEA for personal reasons. He headed MEA through the decisive years of consolidation, drove MEA successfully through its merger with Air Liban, preserved the airline during the Intra collapse, and even managed to hand MEA to his successor, Asaad Nasr, as a profit-making enterprise, in spite of Lebanon's leap into war's inferno. To many, Alamuddin's resignation signalled the end of an era in MEA's history.

Political tensions were rising again (BEY was closed for traffic during 3 weeks in 1981), and the airline had made significant losses by the end of 1981.

1982 was one of Lebanon and MEA's darkest years, as it signalled the country's invasion by Israeli troops, determined to put an end to Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon. BEY was closed for a total 115 days. Its shelling by the Israeli army cost MEA 6 of its Boeing 720s, and the airline re-initiated its emergency conversion plan to a charter carrier for other airlines as long as BEY was closed to traffic. It was only by September 1982 that operations could be resumed in BEY. Salim Salaam replaced Asaad Nasr as MEA's chairman and president in October 1982.

BEY was closed for traffic for 154 days in 1984 (from February to July), MEA ended the year with a record 293.413.000 L.L loss, and dim prospects for the years to follow.

More at:

Air Liban

Air Liban was founded in 1945 as Compagnie Gˇnˇrale de Transports, CGT. Air France held 60% of the airline's shares, the remainder was owned by Lebanese private interests. The airline started its operations in late 1945, close behind MEA, its main competitor. It first had short regional routes linking Beirut with Damascus, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Cairo. In 1950, CGT became Air Liban, and new destinations were added: Istanbul and Jeddah. A service to Kuwait was added in 1952. The Near East network was consolidated by the opening of services to Nicosia and Amman the same year. In 1954 the airline to reopened which had initially closed for technical reasons. The West African route went from Beirut to Accra via Khartoum, Fort Lamy (now N'Djamena in Chad), Kano and Cotonou. Paris was added later on, via Ankara. Cargo was also an important part of Air Liban's development in the mid fifties.

Competition between MEA and Air Liban reflected rivalry within Lebanon's social tissue. Air Liban's Lebanese shareholders had French sympathies, and depended much on their partnership with Air France. Air Liban enjoyed thus, and for many years, the unlimited support of its powerful French ally, as well as the sympathy of a certain political class in Lebanon, namely the Presidency of the Republic.

On the opposite, MEA had been founded by the Salaam family, known for its pan-Arab stands. MEA had a long standing partnership with BOAC (despite a Pan Am intermede), and was finally acquired in 1961 by Intra Bank, Lebanon's most powerful financial institution of that time, headed by Yousif Bedas, whose Palestinian origin was frowned upon by Lebanon's government.

Despite MEA's often difficult relations with the successive Lebanese cabinets, its commercial success came in sharp contrast to the increasing financial difficulties of Air Liban. Air France became eager to find a solution to the burden Air Liban was gradually becoming. As Air Liban's Lebanese shareholders showed little understanding to Air France's worries, and refused to surrender some of their privileges for the sake of the survival of their company, AF had no alternative but to start secret negociations with MEA. After many episodes, described in detail by Sheikh Najib Alamuddin, MEA's president, in his book "The Flying Sheikh", and despite counterproductive interference from Lebanon's politicians, at the highest level, the deal came through, with both airlines merging to form Middle East Airlines-Air Liban (MEA), on June 7th, 1963. Air France held 28% of the airline's shares, the remainder went for Intra Bank. MEA's 1964 timetable marks an interesting transition before the complete merger of both airlines' operations.

MEA continued its progression and solid expansion through the sixties and seventies and built itself as one of Lebanon's most successful and prestigious private companies.


Trans Mediterranean Airways

Trans Mediterranean Airways (TMA) Established 1953 all cargo airline. 1968:TMA established the longest scheduled air cargo route in the world, linking the United Kingdom, Europe, Middle East, India, South-East Asia and the Far East. Suspended operations 1985, restarted 1986. New stock issue in 1996 to refloat the company. A major world-wide carrier in the late 50's and early 60's. (From and my [bl] own memory.)

Lebanese International Airways

Lebanese International Airways began scheduled flights in January 1956 to international destinations from Beirut airport. By 1958 the airline was expanding its network with the help of Sabena - Belgian World Airlines. By the mid 1960s LIA had a network which included Teheran, Kuwait, Baghdad Bahrain, Paris and Milan. The airline ceased operations in January 1969 after military action at Beirut airport had damaged it's fleet. (From

Israeli raid on BEY, 1968

Dec 28 1968- Israel raids Beirut airport, destroying 13 civilian planes, in retaliation for attack on Israeli plane in Athens by the PFLP. (Details including intelligence pictures here:



Creation Date: 20031202 / Last modified: Tue Dec 2 16:02:58 2003 / bl