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?
On Twitter, the immediate concern soon led to sarcasm:
Some conclude that the Syrian regime is not all that bad:
The sarcasm was more witty abroad, especially in the United States:
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.
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:
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).