BEIRUT: A Middle East Airlines plane was forced to return to Beirut airport while in midair after Iraqi authorities refused to allow it to land in Baghdad without the son of an Iraqi official on board, the airline said in a statement.
Later in the day, MEA issued another statement, saying the company was waiting for the results of the investigation to determine the circumstances behind the incident.
It also said that the first statement was based on "conclusions made by passengers who were on board the plane."
Lebanon's Transport Minister Ghazi Zeaiter asked Lebanese Civil Aviation to immediately launch an investigation into the incident to clarify why the plane was not given clearance to land in Baghdad.
Airbus 322 was scheduled to depart Beirut at 12:46 p.m. but was delayed six minutes after one of its passengers, the son of Iraqi Transport Minister Hadi al-Amiri, Mahdi, failed to make the flight, MEA said.
The passenger was not at the Rafik Hariri International Airport at the scheduled time, according to a statement from the airline.
Twenty minutes after the plane’s departure, the head of MEA in Baghdad contacted the flight crew, saying Iraqi authorities would not allow the plane to land unless Amiri’s son was on board.
Upon its return to Beirut, the flight to Baghdad was canceled, forcing 71 people who were on board the plane to cancel their trip and search for new flights.
Contacts are ongoing between the Lebanese and the Iraqi authorities to resolve the matter.
The state-run airlines said the incident resulted in material losses for the company and threw its flight schedules into disarray.
Marwan Salha, acting chairman of MEA, told Reuters a scenario similar to the company’s first statement, saying, MEA staff looked for Amiri and his friend in the business lounge.
"We made the necessary announcements and the last calls," he said. "The plane took off, but one of the passengers turned out to be the son of the minister of Iraq."
Salha said that when Amiri arrived at the gate he was angry and said: "I will not allow the plane to land in Baghdad."
Kareem al-Nuri, the transport minister's media adviser, said: "There were cleaning operations in the airport and specific measures were taken. We asked all flights not to land in Baghdad airport after 9 a.m. (0600 GMT) but this flight arrived after this time, so we asked it to turn back.
"This information [about the minister's son] is not true and the minister is not accepting such behaviour. The minister's son was not scheduled to take that flight at all."
An official at Baghdad airport, who asked not to be named, said air traffic was normal, with 30 flights landing on Thursday. The only one turned around was the one from Beirut. -With Reuters