Ghada Alsharif| The Daily Star
Middle East Airlines reversed its decision to only accept payments in U.S. dollars, a source close to the airline told The Daily Star Sunday evening.
The source said that the decision came at the request of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, adding that a series of meeting would be held in order to discuss the reasons behind MEA’s earlier decision.
MEA Chairman Mohammed Hout was expected to address the issue in a news conference Monday, but the source said that that had been canceled.
A statement from the airline released Saturday evening said all airlines operating in Lebanon, including MEA, would only accept payments in dollars starting Monday.
In the statement, MEA said that “all card payments will be accepted in addition to bank checks, provided that the operation is in foreign currency.”
The statement added that passengers would be able to pay excess baggage fees and for changes to reservations in Lebanese pounds at Rafik Hariri International Airport
The move sparked outrage on social media, and dozens of people rushed to the MEA office at the airport in an order to purchase tickets before the decision came into effect.
“The authorities should be ashamed,” a man at the Middle East Airlines office said to Lebanese media during a televised interview.
The man said that because of the decision, he would have to pay the difference of LL250,000.
A post on Twitter by journalist Imane Ibrahim said she had tried to buy a ticket before the decision came in to effect, but discovered that the airline had stopped online purchases.
Following the announcement, the Free Patriotic Movement said in a statement that it would sue the airline, and that it would file the lawsuit at the request of FPM leader MP Gebran Bassil.
The FPM in the statement called on Hout to reverse the decision, stressing that the rejection of the national currency “constitutes a criminal offense and violates the text stipulated in the 2020 state budget, which makes it a requirement to deal in the national currency.”
Ticket prices have led to unfair competition between travel agents and airlines. Late in January, travel and tourism agency owners protested at MEA offices in Hamra.
They claimed that MEA had been dealing with them in dollars while selling tickets to customers directly in Lebanese pounds.
The Association of Travel and Tourist Agents in Lebanon issued a statement Sunday confirming that it had reached a solution that would “unify the standards of dealing between airlines on one hand, and both travel and tourism offices and consumers on the other hand.”
However, it was not made immediately clear what the standardization would entail or whether it was linked to MEA’s decision to only accept dollars.
The association thanked “all those political officials who contributed to the solution, led by President Michel Aoun, and the department of operating airlines.”
Aoun released a statement clarifying that the association had issued a complaint regarding the unfair competition, to which he suggested the standardization of ticket pricing, in accordance with Lebanese laws so that pricing would be in Lebanese pounds.
MEA’s announcement comes against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis Lebanon has witnessed since the 1975-90 Civil War.
Middle East Airlines is majority-owned by the Lebanese state and managed by the Central Bank.
The Lebanese pound continues to tumble in value, and individual Lebanese banks are imposing their own arbitrary capital controls on depositors. These measures include strict limits on withdrawals of hard currency.
Lebanon has been facing a dollar crunch for months, and the value of the national currency has fallen as a result.
The dollar is valued at around LL2,300 at exchange shops but the Central Bank has maintained the official peg at LL1,507.