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The dangers for planes at Beirut international airport: guns and gulls

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If flying makes you nervous, consider flying in and out of Beirut, Lebanon's international airport. The runway is beside a polluted beach and a landfill on one side and densely populated areas on the other. NPR's Ruth Sherlock had a look.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: What are the dangers for planes flying out of Beirut airport? They are seagulls and live bullets. I'm standing on a beach which runs parallel to the runway in Beirut airport, and the sea is brown with raw sewage. And behind me is an enormous landfill site. This attracts seagulls.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE FLYING)

SHERLOCK: On the other side of the airport runway are residential suburbs of Beirut, and in these areas, it's traditional to fire your gun in celebration or in anger. So when people pass their exams or when a political leader gives a speech, people fire into the air.

MOHAMMED AZIZ: Bullets will travel...

SHERLOCK: In the fuselage, or...

AZIZ: In the fuselage.

SHERLOCK: And one bullet can make a hole in the...

AZIZ: It'll make a hole, of course, because the bullet that goes up has to come down. That's Newton's law. Everything that goes up has to come down.

SHERLOCK: That's Mohammed Aziz. He's a retired pilot and advises Lebanon's national carrier, Middle East Airlines, on security. As he says, this New Year's Eve alone, the company had to ground two of its planes because they were pierced by falling bullets.

AZIZ: So we have it as a part of our checklist now. Whenever we check aircraft, we check for bullets when an aircraft is parked.

SHERLOCK: Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport remains busy with people coming for tourism, business and family visits daily. So far, no one is believed to have been injured, but Lebanese media recently reported that a stray bullet hit a passenger's iPhone as he walked out of the terminal, and disease was on a plane that aborted its takeoff when it collided with birds.

AZIZ: We went back to the gate. I could see the aircraft. All the windshield on both side were full of blood from the birds.

SHERLOCK: There are seagulls attracted to the nearby landfill and coastal sewer, and there are also flocks of domesticated pigeons owned by people living in buildings that overlook the runway. In 2017, in an act of desperation, as he says, Middle East Airlines invited some 125 hunters to come and shoot the seagulls. They killed thousands of birds.

AZIZ: Either you shoot the bird or let the bird harm an aircraft. So harming an aircraft with 150 or 250 people on board is not really a choice.

SHERLOCK: Officials with the airport did not provide a comment on the situation. And government officials now say most of the landfill is covered, but some is still exposed, and there are still sewers nearby. Paula Yacoubian, an independent member of Parliament, has campaigned for the landfill to be removed. And she was on the plane that was hit by gunfire after landing.

PAULA YACOUBIAN: And it was really scary. The bullet was 20 centimeter above my head.

SHERLOCK: Yacoubian says politicians have repeatedly appealed to citizens not to fire their weapons, but this is rarely enforced. Lebanon is in an economic crisis that the World Bank has blamed on mismanagement and corruption.

YACOUBIAN: Again, you go back to this inefficient mafia that is ruling the country, and all crises that we live are somehow the result of this mafia.

SHERLOCK: Yacoubian says the story of the gulls, the garbage and the guns at Beirut airport is symptomatic of the failure of Lebanon as a state.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.