France: An Epic Flight from Paris to Beirut – via Damascus

An Air France flight from Paris to Beirut on August 15, 2012, turned into a 20-hour nightmare for its passengers, and probably even more so for the distinguished travellers on board: the French Ambassador to Lebanon, and several personalities who oppose Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.

Air France, citing fuel shortage and security reasons – a Shiite demonstration against the kidnapping of their people in Syria, which blocked the road leading to Beirut airport – ending up having to divert its flight to Damascus, Syria, [fr] after hesitating for an hour.

The issue intensified when it was discovered the crew had no means of paying for kerosene, after Damascus airport told them that credit cards were no longer accepted because of the sanctions recently imposed on the Syrian regime – notably by France. The crew had to ask passengers to make cash contributions.

After that, the plane made a detour to Cyprus, and finally landed in Beirut.

Insecurity in Beirut and security in Damascus?

Air France Boeing 747-440 d'Air France during landing by caribb on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND-2.0)

Air France Boeing 747-440 d'Air France during landing by caribb on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND-2.0)

On Twitter, the immediate concern soon led to sarcasm:

@clarissecarnets: Un vol Air France pour Beyrouth dérouté sur Amman “Conditions de sécurité pas entières sur la route de l'aéroport”

@clarissecarnets: An Air France flight from France to Beirut diverted to Amman “No full security measures conditions on the airport road” [Amman was the initial diversion option]

@FlashPresse: Le Liban rattrapé par le conflit syrien: Un avion d'Air France a été dérouté et les kidnappings se multiplient :…

@FlashPresse: Lebanon overtaken by the Syrian conflict: An Air France plane diverted and the kidnappings are increasing:…

@RimkAbdulJabbar: #LastRT Ce genre de #FAIL intergalactique… #Liban #Syrie #Damas#AirFrance

@TibDupont: Dérouter un avion dans une ville qui abrite Thierry Meyssan depuis plusieurs semaines… Faut être taré!

@TibDupont: Diverting a plane in a city that provides a home for Thierry Meyssan [a controversial french conspiracy theorist] for several weeks… Must be crazy!
The Price of Peace - Damascus International Airport, 2006 by fabuleuxfab on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)

The Price of Peace – Damascus International Airport, 2006 by fabuleuxfab on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)

Some conclude that the Syrian regime is not all that bad:

@FredericHelbert: Avion #AirFrance qui va faire un tour à #Damas: Du temps de #SaddamHussein, ils auraient ts finis otages! Sports les syriens sur ce coup!

@FredericHelbert: #AirFrance plane that's going to go around #Damascus: In this amount of time in #SaddamHussein‘s regime, they would've ended up as hostages! The Syrians played nice on this one!

@kadsak: Comment un avion Air France a pu atterir et decoller a #Damas, cet enfer qu'on nous decrit tous les jours dans les médias français? #syrie

@kadsak: How was an Air France plane able to land and take off in #Damascus, which is always described by French media as hell? #Syria

The sarcasm was more witty abroad, especially in the United States:

@StephaniaSun:@AP@RadioChio: “all right, everyone get out and push…”

@nytjim: This is your captain panhandling: Air France pilot asks passengers to chip in for fuel after landing in #Syria

The Minister is angry, and Air France defends itself

The Quay d'Orsay (French Ministry of Foreign Affairs) had to intervene so that Syrian intelligence officers were prohibited from entering on board the plane.  For Laurent Fabius, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, the decision was a “stupid mistake” [fr]:

“It was extremely dangerous […]. It's hard to make decisions in these complicated circumstances. In the midst of conflict, I'm sure you agree with me that going to Damascus wasn't the most appropriate decision–and I'm diplomatic,” said the outraged minister.

Damascus International Airport (2005), by plasticshore on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)

Damascus International Airport (2005), by plasticshore on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)

However, Air France has a clear conscience [fr]:

Must we remind you that the captain is “the only master on board, after God,” and that his primary concern was undoubtedly his passengers’ security? The Air France plane had flown into Cyprus at night with no problems, and departed the next day for Beirut, where everyone arrived safe and sound…

After being scolded by the minister, the company pleded [fr] that the crew was deceived by a Syrian air traffic controller:

The captain consequently decided to divert the plane to Amman in Jordan (the planned alternate airport when the the Lebanon airport is inaccessible) by flying through Syria.
But the crew didn't get the correct [flight]  trajectory from the Syrian air traffic controller. It would have told us, too, “to change course at 270°, instead of simply to turn at 90°,” said the Air France management team.

In addition, the passengers weren't lending a hand [fr]:

The Transport Code allows (the pilot) to borrow money from passengers “if problems arise in carrying out his task.”
In the end, he didn't borrow money from the passengers. The Air France station manager in Damascus arrived at the airport and used his credit card to get the necessary kerosene.


Commentators wanted to dig a bit deeper. Blogger 2kismokton asks two questions [fr], a technical one, and a political one:

1- Why is a plane, that's nearing the end of its flight, short on fuel, while the safety standard is to save half of it upon arrival? It should've been able to fly for 2 more hours!

2- Why is the air traffic controller (Lebanese) diverting a civilian aircraft towards a civil war zone? Aren't there other airports in Turkey? Israel? Airports that would've allowed a “safe” landing for the plane, crew, and its passengers? This shows the disastrous impacts of the Arab countries’ political boycott of Israel. As a result, Israel never appears on local aerial maps!

In Beirut, Middle East Strategic Perspectives consultants analyze [fr] why Air France can't be held responsible for the “stupid, tactless, and dangerous” decision. They conclude:

Paris failed that day to interpret, in real time, the developments on the field, in Lebanon as well as in Damas, on both diplomatic and security levels. This was not to launder Air France, nor to charge the French authorities. Even the French airline can't be excused for this unfortunate situation, in being unable to request for competent French authorities, and because the dysfunctions seem obvious at the “old” system level on the Middle East zone. Instead, we should look at Paris to see if there was anyone in charge on August 15. Air France should perhaps ask the French authorities for explanations…

And Lebanon, in the midst of all this?

In Lebanon, people are shocked. On August 17, the newspaper L'Orient Le Jour expressed the people's dismay:

@LOrientLeJour: La bourse ou la vie, option des passagers du vol Paris-Beyrouth d'Air France. Un billet d'humeur de Michel Touma #liban

@LOrientLeJour: Handing over your purse or your life? These were the options of the passengers on the Air France Paris-Beirut flight. Michel Touma's humour column #liban

The columnist writes [fr]:

one may wonder if the pilot landed on another planet… An after-thought equally applies to all of Air France's general management in Paris…
Considering that Damascus is more secure than Beirut (compared with Syria's current volatile situation), can only be explained by the (sad) fact that those who made the decision to divert towards the Syrian capital are totally out of touch with today's realities (Earth).

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