In effort to collect dollars, Middle East Airlines stops over-the-counter ticket sales in Lebanon
Lebanon’s state-owned airline, Middle East Airlines (MEA), has stopped over-the-counter ticket sales at its offices across the country, effectively forcing customers to pay in foreign currency, Al Arabiya reported.
Tickets can now only be purchased online or at the airport, in US dollars.
The decision was reportedly made by the airline last week over complaints of unfair competition.
While, the association of Travel & Tourists Agents in Lebanon argued that selling tickets in Lebanese lira at the official exchange rate was damaging travel agencies.
The official exchange rate is pegged at 1,507.5 lira to the dollar, but customers are forced to pay at the inflated black-market rate, which has reached as high as 2,500 lira to the dollar in recent months.
MEA had announced on 16 February that from 17 February, it, and other airline companies operating in Lebanon would only accept payments in US dollars.
The airline is majority-owned by the Lebanese state and administrated by the country’s central bank.
Yet, former foreign minister Gebran Bassil called the move “illegal”, while one Member of Parliament Fouad Makhzoumi claimed the move put the Lebanese people under virtual “house arrest”.
However, the decision was quickly revoked after hoards of people gathered at the airline’s office in the airport – the only one open on a Sunday – in the hope of paying for tickets in local currency.
Lebanon is in the middle of an economic crisis and a severe US dollar shortage, which has led to the national currency losing up to 60 per cent of its value in recent months.
The government is facing a difficult decision over repayment, or default, of Eurobonds worth $1.2 billion which are maturing on 9 March.
The national banking association initially urged for the bond to be repaid but have since revised their proposal and requested a bond swap, rather than a default.
The Hezbollah-backed cabinet is set to announce a decision on the repayment of Eurobonds on Friday or Saturday, after lengthy talks with a team from the IMF in February.
The country is embroiled in a simultaneous political crisis, with anti-government protests calling for the overhaul of the sectarian system and the corrupt political elite, since October.