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Lebanon’s airline defends decision to charge returnees for flights

April 7, 2020 at 11:33 am

Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines (MEA) [Aero Icarus/Wikimedia]

Chairman of Middle East Airlines (MEA) Mohammad Hout defended the company’s position to charge returning expats for their flights in a press conference yesterday.

The airline is accused of charging returnees exorbitant prices to be repatriated during the coronavirus crisis.

Hout said, “[MEA’s] priority is the continuity of the company”, adding that MEA “[is] unable to support the expatriates returning from abroad”.

Four planes arrived in Beirut on Sunday from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the Ivory Coast with a total of 266 passengers on board. A further 120 touched down in Beirut from Lagos, Nigeria, in the early hours of yesterday.

According to Naharnet, the cost of tickets on these flights ranged between $750 and $3,900.

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Hout said the “flight tickets are priced at cost without profit”, adding that MEA “is a commercial company”.

MEA chairman stated that “the company incurs a loss of about $35 million a month as a result of the airport’s closure. We were making losses before, but not as much as during the coronavirus crisis… we are incapable of supporting the expats returning from abroad because our priority is the company’s continuity.”

Adding that MEA remains committed to ensuring employees retain their jobs “until we run out of cash”.

“We have no plan to lay them off because they are pillars of the company.”

The return of Lebanese citizens stranded abroad became a heated issue after Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri threatened to suspend support for the government if it did not act quickly to bring them home last week.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government had initially said that Lebanese stranded abroad could not return until after 12 April, when the current lockdown measures are set to end, barring an extension.

The first phase of returning expatriates started on Sunday, and is expected to end next Sunday, with a second wave scheduled between 27 April and 4 May.

Diab said, “there are between 20,000 and 21,000 expatriates who registered to return” across the world.

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Including another 1,500 who have also asked to return from Saudi Arabia, Lebanese Ambassador to the Kingdom told local media.

Returnees were tested for the virus at the airport and transported to designated hotels in the Beirut district of Raoucheh, where they spent the night awaiting test results.

Medical teams were also on board the planes.

Minister for Health Hamad Hassan said there were no recorded cases of coronavirus among the returnees from Abu Dhabi or Riyadh.

“The results of the passengers from Abu Dhabi are good, and there are no cases, thank God.”

To date, Lebanon has confirmed 541 coronavirus cases, among them 60 recoveries and 19 deaths.