Middle East Airlines (MEA) -the national flag carrier of Lebanon, seeks to conduct existing and upcoming flights to Africa using its forthcoming Airbus A321-200NX (XLRs). The Managing Director of the airline, Mohamed Al Hout, said that the airline is poised to operate A321XLRs on existing routes as well as new routes connecting Lebanon and Africa.
Airbus’ new long-range single-aisle jet A321LR will serve ‘long, thin’ routes. Al Hout further said that they have many thin routes that are unprofitable to sustain widebody aircraft, especially Africa. The new destinations to serve in Africa include Kinshasa N’Djili, Monrovia Roberts, Brazzaville, Freetown, Conakry Luanda, and Libreville. So, the flag carrier is looking forward to catering to new markets as well as increasing flight frequencies on routes like Lagos, Abidjan, Accra it currently serves to make their daily flights.
The network expansion in the African market can strengthen the role of Beirut Airport as a hub to concentrate traffic flow. At present, a minimal number, around 5%, of air travelers travel via Lebanon. Middle East Airlines is hopeful regarding the rise of this share with an increase of new feeder flights from African markets that are underserved. Notwithstanding the possibility, the carrier focuses on retaining its position as a predominant point-to-point airline, targeting solely on the origin and destination.
Lebanese carrier MEA has no intention of conducting transatlantic flights moving onwards but will operate codeshare flights with fellow SkyTeam carriers and other codeshare partners to make seamless travel between Beirut and North America. In July, MEA had signed a codeshare deal with Virgin Atlantic to connect Lebanese capital and the United States of America via London Heathrow Airport.
A321-200NX (XLRs) on order
MEA fleet solely consists of Airbus aircraft, including A320s, A321neos, and A321XLRs on order. The airline has made a firm order for four A321XLRs under a sales/lease-back contract with BOC Aviation. The first three units will be delivered to MEA in 2024, while the fourth unit will join the MEA fleet in 2025. MEA signed a firm order agreement for a quartet of XLRs during the 2019 Paris Air Show.
MEA operated three variants of Boeing 747 to grace its fleet over the years. Beirut-based SkyTeam member carrier refreshed its fleet with new aircraft, Airbus A330 (which is MEA’s long-haul flagship carrier), A321-200NS. Now, MEA owns nine A321-200NS and has ordered two such units. The long-haul duties of MEA are handled by five A330-200s, of which one is currently inactive and is planned to be sold. Similarly, the airline possesses a fleet of 9 A320-200s and plans to sell 5 of them. It has also ordered four A330-900s to replace widebody jets which were slated to arrive in 2021-22, but the airline deferred its delivery timeline to at least 2026.
From Lebanon to Africa or the USA
Lebanon consists of one of the largest diaspora populations living in the US and Africa. Lebanese have scattered globally residing overseas, resulting in less number of people in the home country. Given the current situation induced by the pandemic, the large, fast-growing demand from Lebanese living in the US to visit their near and dear ones post-pandemic has surged, which will help the airline to capture such demand. Similarly, political riots, increasing unemployment, and uncertainty have increased the trend of Lebanese leaving their home country to move abroad. MEA’s move to pursue network expansion into Africa is a strategic step for the carrier, given the large population of Lebanese in Africa and migration trends.
Operation of A321XLRs
Considered to be the perfect plane for airlines post-COVID period, the A321XLR, as the latest evolution of winning A321 neo family, is designed to be a game-changer in the aviation industry to take over widebody aircraft on extended routes. The routes which might not be commercially viable with widebody aircraft might be lucrative with A321XLR to operate thinner routes to Africa. MEA will operate the unit to deepen its African footprints while opening up the possibility of going to the East in the near future. MEA intends for four such models with extra fuel tanks attributing to high residual values.
A321XLR is the next evolutionary version of Airbus A321 neo family aircraft from A321LR (long-range) that will deliver an unprecedented Xtra Long Range of up to 4700nm. It is powered to provide a 15% increase in range while minimizing 30% fuel burn per seat in comparison to previous generation airplanes.
Middle East Airlines is a subsidiary airline company of Bank of Lebanon, founded on 31 May 1945, and operates scheduled international flights to over 34 destinations using a fleet of 26 aircraft.