Lebanon’s flag carrier airline, ‘Middle East Airlines-Air Liban’ (MEA) has confirmed its order for four Airbus A330neo’s, opting for the A330-900 variant, the larger model. The airline becomes the latest Middle Eastern customer to order the new jet, following Kuwait Airways’ firm order for the smaller variant, the A330-800neo.
This morning, Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, signed the contract with Rolls-Royce, the sole-engine supplier of the A330neo.
MEA currently operates a fleet of A330-200 aircraft and A320-200s. If the airline were looking to directly replace their A330-200s with re-engined models, they would have opted for the smaller variant of the A330neo, the A330-800 (which still only has one confirmed customer, Kuwait Airways). However, MEA is looking to upscale its operations, hence its order for the larger A330-900 variant.
Airbus and MEA’s partnership dates back to the early days when MEA operated some of Airbus’ first passenger jets, A300s and A310s – and while Boeing has attempted to win the business of the Lebanese flag carrier, its long-standing loyalty to Airbus continues with the latest A330neo order.
A330neo’s feature brand new wings, with an extended wingspan of 64m.
Furthermore, the aircraft is powered by new Rolls Royce engines, with Trent XWB technology (found on the A350), and all new nacelles and pylons. The aircraft will provide MEA with a 14% fuel burn improvement per seat, and increased range, compared with the airlines’ existing A330 aircraft.
The Rolls Royce Trent 7000 engines are truly state-of-the-art, and even include a 24/7 engine health monitoring system that relays key performance information back to Rolls-Royce, even while the aircraft is still airborne.
On my test flights of the A330neo earlier this year, I felt the most noticeable difference of the aircraft (from a passenger point-of-view) was the cabin quietness.
There is no longer a ‘whooshing’ sound, and I was able to communicate with colleagues at what I’d consider a normal ‘inside’ speaking voice volume, very similar to what passengers already experience on quiet jets including the Airbus A350 XWB, and Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
The new sharklets are visually sleek, and Airbus has improved the lift-to-drag ratio by using A350 XWB wing philosophy.
Next year, MEA will begin taking delivery of 11 Airbus A320neo family aircraft — powered by Pratt and Whitney GTF engines. The first A321neo will join the fleet next year.
It means the Lebanese carrier will eventually operate one of the Middle East’s most efficient fleets, with ‘new-engine-option’ aircraft set to operate across both its short and mid-haul operations.
Currently, the airline only flies to destinations within the Middle East, Africa and Europe, from its hub in Beirut.
The A330neos extra range (when compared with MEA’s current A330ceos) will enable the carrier to explore new markets further afield, including to the U.S, and Asia. However, for now — the airline is a member of the Skyteam alliance, which means passengers wishing to travel further afield can connect onto other member airlines.
In terms of the airline, Middle East Airlines is known for something very unusual in the commercial aviation world…
Despite the US Department of Travel specifically warning US citizens not to fly on an airline that travels through Syrian airspace, and despite the dangers being repeatedly highlighted by IATA (The International Air Transport Association), EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency), among other regulators, it hasn’t stopped Lebanon’s flag carrier, Middle East Airlines — who remain the only non-Syrian/non-Iraqi carrier still using Syrian Airspace for flights across its route network.
In my piece earlier this year ‘The Airline Risking It Over Syria’ — I wrote about how MEA is unlike every other airline, in that the national carrier of Lebanon flies over Syria on nearly all of its eastbound routes, including between Lebanon and Dubai, where a detour would only add an extra 25 minutes — but it’s not a detour the airline is willing to take.
Financially, MEA’s results show that it turned in a profit of just over $96.2 million for the year ending December 2017, up around 2.3%.
With the latest A330neo order, Middle East Airlines is set to become a very efficient airline, with significant growth potential.
The carrier disappoints many in its decisions to continue to fly over territory deemed ‘dangerous’ by most of the world’s aviation regulators, but ultimately this is nothing new, and MEA’s decision to continue flying over Syria has proved controversial for several years.
Personally, I’m looking forward to the new cabin design opportunities MEA will have with the introduction of these new NEO jets, especially on its wide-body aircraft.