Lebanese airline charges exorbitant prices to return citizens stranded abroad

Lebanese airline charges exorbitant prices to return citizens stranded abroad
Middle East Airlines, Lebanon's national airline that has stopped accepting Lebanese currency, is now asking for steep amounts to repatriate citizens stranded abroad.
3 min read
03 April, 2020
Middle East Airlines is owned by Lebanon's Central Bank [AFP]
Lebanon's Middle East Airlines has started selling economy tickets costing on average five times the country's minimum wage in current market-price exchange rates, the airline announced on Friday, as flights were arranged to return Lebanese citizens stranded abroad due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a statement, the national flag-carrier airline listed prices of what it said were consecutive break-even flights, scheduled to start operating on Sunday and return Lebanese nationals from four different cities.

Lebanon's government had promised to arrange flights for citizens who sought to return after the country closed its airport to commercial flights. 

The average economy ticket price stands at a whopping $1,250, calculated according to price tags listed by the company in US dollars for flights from Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Abidjan and Lagos. 

For its lowest priced flight, MEA is charging $650 for less than 3 hours of flight time from Riyadh to Beirut.

An upcoming flight from Riyadh on Sunday will be the first in a series of flights requested by the government to return Lebanese citizens who had signed up for repatriation through the country's embassies abroad.

In its statement, MEA said the flights will only be half filled to distance passengers on the plane, and will not be carrying travellers on its way to Saudi Arabia.

The flights will not generate profit, MEA said, claiming the above factors have caused prices to be above their normal range.

The airline's decision quickly drew scorn and criticism from Lebanese citizens.

Published to the airline's social media channels, MEA's statement attracted comments from stranded Lebanese nationals saying they can’t afford tickets, as well as families in Lebanon unable to pay for their loved ones' returns.

However, a few social media users supported the company for providing repatriation flights amid the Covid-19 crisis.

"Ticket pricing is supposed to be high in times of epidemics so that the number of people using the services are limited. These prices are high but not unreasonable," wrote one Facebook user.

MEA is 99.5 percent owned by Lebanon's Central Bank. The bank's governor of 27 years, Riyad Salameh, is largely blamed for the country's financial collapse by Lebanese protesters.

As of 2012, Lebanon's monthly minimum wage stands at around LL 675,000, according to the country's social security authority. In today's black market exchange rates, that amounts to around $225 USD.

Read more: Lebanon banks halt dollar withdrawals after coronavirus closes airport

Lebanon's financial crisis has forced many businesses to lower wages, fire employees or close.

The crisis has also plunged the value of the Lebanese lira. Market rates for $1 now stand at an all time high of over LL 3,000 after banks stopped dollar withdrawals amid a government crackdown on exchange shops.

The official exchange rate, controlled by the Central Bank, is still pegged at LL 1,507.

Many Lebanese citizens stranded abroad were left cash-strapped after informal capital controls were introduced.

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