New flights to two Libya hot-zones raise security concerns

Serious concerns have arisen following the apparent decision of a Maltese-registered airline to open two new routes to Libya

PLANit Travel Services is accepting bookings for weekly flights to Misurata and Labraq but contrary to reports flights will not be operated by Afriqiyah Airways
PLANit Travel Services is accepting bookings for weekly flights to Misurata and Labraq but contrary to reports flights will not be operated by Afriqiyah Airways

Serious concerns have arisen following the apparent decision of a Maltese-registered airline to open two new routes to Libya, particularly with regards to the security in the areas involved and the involvement of Libya’s Afriqiyah Airways. 

The issue came to light last week after a series of articles have appeared online, including on a website called African Intelligence claiming Afriqiyah would be flying to Malta from Misurata and Labraq. 

PLANit Travel Services, a travel agency based in Gzira, announced it was accepting bookings for twice weekly flights to Misurata and twice weekly flights to Labraq in eastern Libya. In each cases, return flights to Malta are advertised for the same days.

The flights are listed as ‘charters’ but are actually scheduled to run up to at least 26 March.

MaltaToday has confirmed that Malta-based (and registered) Medavia will be operating the flights, using its own aircraft, disproving the reports on African Intelligence. The company already operates three round trips per week to Mitiga Airport in Tripoli. 

Ivan Refalo, Head of Corporate Communications at Medavia, told MaltaToday that the company had been requested to operate flights by a Maltese travel agent (PLANit). 

“We do not have any interline agreements with any other party,” he said. “We are planning to operate these flights as requested by the Maltese travel agent with our own fleet.” 

Refalo said that the two routes were not new to Medavia. 

“We have already operated charter flights both to Misurata and Labraq in the past for different clients,” he said.

Libyan airlines cannot operate in Europe under current EU restrictions, due to concerns regarding regulatory oversight.

Sources have told us that Libyan carriers are frustrated due to the ban and are reluctant to accept EU regulatory requirements. Reports like those that appeared on the African Intelligence portal could be an attempt to put pressure on EU authorities to lift the ban.  

Afriqiyah Airways, which operated the aircraft that was hijacked to and diverted to Malta on 23 December 2016, had already tried to circumvent the regulations by opening a company in Malta it registered as PanAfriqiyah.  MaltaToday has learned that the application was not accepted because the company did not satisfy various criteria.

A spokesman for Afriqiyah confirmed that the four new weekly flights were not Afriqiyah flights. A phone call to PLANit confirmed this as well.

Medavia owns and operates two Beechcraft 1900D, one Dash 8 100 and two Dash 8’s 300, but since the Beechcraft are small executive planes, the Dash aircraft that will be used on these routes, as they are for the Mitiga route.

The flights still do not appear on Malta International Airport’s table of scheduled flights, but according to PLANit, the flights to Misurata will be at 9am on Sundays – starting today – and at 2.30pm on Wednesdays. The flights to Labraq are scheduled to leave Malta at 10am on Thursdays and 1.30pm on Tuesdays.

As is the practice in the aviation industry, any airline starting a new route to Malta would need to carry out detailed risk assessments to determine if the security setup at the airports involved is up to required standards.

This security audit would then have to be presented to the Civil Aviation Department in Malta, together with confirmation that the airline has secured insurance to cover the flights to and from the new destinations. 

Transport Malta told MaltaToday that flights were only approved on an ad hoc basis and were subject to additional checks. 

"All flights to and from Libya require individual clearance and checks, and approvals can be withdrawn without notice," Stanley Agius,
Media and Communications Manager at TM said. "The risk assessment reports are part of the conditions for ad hoc flights and insurance must cover the Libyan territory. Cargo is not allowed on any of the flights." 

Refalo confirmed that all security risk assessments had been carried out.

“We can confirm that risk assessments for both airports are carried out regularly,” he said. “This is a process that needs to be carried out before each and every flight.”

Security is the major concern being raised by sources in the industry. 

Other concerns were on the control of visas being issued for Libyan citizens to travel to Malta.

Italy and Greece have both completely banned flights to and from Libya for security reasons. Malta and other states, on the other hand, allows flights under very strict conditions. Although passenger movements are low, there are regular cargo flights that operate in and out of Libyan airports and a regular flow of business jets that fly in and out of Libya. 

Misurata and Labraq are two cities located very close to areas controlled by Islamist militias or where Islamist groups are prevalent.

Misurata lies to the west of the country, between Tripoli and Sirte, in an area known to be home to Libya Dawn, a grouping of pro-Islamist militias that in summer 2014 attacked Tripoli International Airport and went on to seize large parts of the capital. The militia alliance can be viewed as the “armed forces” of the General National Congress (GNC), the former parliament which has been reconvened in Tripoli.

Labraq lies between Benghazi and Tobruk, in areas controlled by the Libyan National Army and Khalifah Haftar. But Al-Qaeda’s Libyan affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia, is very prominent in eastern Libya. In Benghazi, its militants have been present since the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011 and have been continuously battling the LNA. The militia has been accused of involvement in the attack on the US consulate in September 2012 in which Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed and is listed by the United States as a terrorist organisation.

Sources in the industry told MaltaToday that airlines could have been pressured to start flying to other airports besides Mitiga in Tripoli. An airport close to Tobruk would be particularly attractive.

Airlines would also be attracted by the current ticket prices, which would start from Libyan Dinar 1,300 (€860) for Misrata-Malta return, LD 750 (€500) single and LD 1,550 (€1,025) Labraq-Malta return, LD 850 (€560) single.

Sources also state that due to the fact that there are still Maltese and EU nationals working in Libya it is vital to have an airlink that can be used as it has been in the past to extract people if need be.

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