Lebanese national carrier to only accept US dollars

AFP , Sunday 16 Feb 2020

Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines
Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines (MEA) will suspend flights to and from Erbil airport in northern Iraq. (Photo: Reuters)

Crisis-hit Lebanon's national carrier will only accept payments in US dollars from Monday, according to state media.

Lebanon is in the throes of an economic meltdown and a biting liquidity crunch that has seen the local currency depreciate on the parallel market and banks impose stringent controls on withdrawals and transfers abroad.

"From Monday, Middle East (Airlines) and other airline companies operating in Lebanon will only accept payments in US dollars," the official National News Agency (NNA) reported on Sunday.

In the wake of the announcement, dozens of customers crowded the MEA offices at Beirut airport -- the only one open on Sunday -- in the hopes of paying for their tickets in Lebanese pounds, images broadcast on local TV showed.

Middle East Airlines (MEA) is majority-owned by the Lebanese state and administrated by the country's central bank.

The Lebanese pound has been officially pegged at 1,507 pounds to the US dollar since 1997, and the two currencies are used interchangeably in the tiny Middle Eastern country.

But in recent months, the pound has plunged against the greenback on the parallel exchange market.

Informal currency controls imposed since late last year have sparked public outrage in the protest-hit country, where an anti-government popular movement launched on October 17 has grown increasingly angry at banking policies.

Major banks in Lebanon began tightening banking controls this month, halving the amount of dollars depositors are allowed to withdraw every month.

It will still be possible to complete certain transactions -- such as modifying reservations and paying for excess baggage -- in local currency at Beirut airport, the NNA said, adding that travellers can pay using check or card, provided the account is in foreign currency.

MEA offices had so far continued to accept payments in pounds at the official rate and Sunday's announcement was met with an angry response on social media.

"MEA: A national airline that does not accept payment in its own national currency. Logic redefined," one Twitter user wrote.

Another posted in response to the news: "Middle East (MEA) belongs to the Lebanese state, it's a flagrant violation of the law. We're not heading for collapse, we're in the middle of it."

The central bank chief said in January that he agreed with money exchange houses capping the parallel rate at 2,000, but the price of dollars at some exchanges continues to rise.

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