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Lebanon's MEA Poised To Become Airbus A321XLR Launch Customer

Jun 17

Lebanon's MEA Poised To Become Airbus A321XLR Launch Customer

Lebanon’s flag carrier has thrown its weight behind Airbus’s widely anticipated A321XLR project and plans to become an early operator of the type if it launches in 2023 as expected.

“Middle East Airlines is one of the first launch customers of the 321XLR,” Mohamad El Hout, the airline’s chairman, told me during the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) this month.

Asked whether MEA has already signed a purchase agreement for the yet-to-be launched model, he clarified: “It [the XLR] is not confirmed. It has not been announced. But I think it’s 90% [certain] it's going [to be launched] … We have agreed with Airbus [to purchase] the 321XLR depending if they launch it. And we will take deliveries in 2023.”

The airline plans to induct four XLRs, drawing from an existing commitment for 15 A321neos

Airbus has still not publicly committed to developing the A321XLR – an extended-range version of its narrowbody A321LR model – but a formal announcement is all but certain at next week’s Paris Air Show. The manufacturer is known to have been talking to prospective customers about the project since last year.

In February, Air Malta chief executive Clifford Chetcuti told me that his carrier also wants to place an order for the upcoming model when it is announced by Airbus.

Several other airlines and airline groups have publicly expressed interest in the project, including AirAsia, American Airlines, Jetstar Airways, Indigo Partners, International Airlines Group and Lufthansa.

El Hout said the A321XLR will enable Lebanon's flag carrier to deepen its footprint in Africa while potentially expanding to Asia.

“We can increase the frequencies to Africa,” he said, referring to MEA's existing routes to Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Accra, Ghana; and Lagos, Nigeria. “Also a smaller plane will give us the flexibility to operate thinner routes to Africa that we cannot operate now, like Kinshasa [in the Democratic Republic of the Congo] or Abuja [in Nigeria] … And it opens for us possibilities to go to the East if needed in the future, to India.

“The XLR really will be a game-changer.”

Prior to receiving its four XLRs, MEA will take delivery of nine A321neos next year and two in 2021.

The flag carrier has not yet decided whether those units will be standard or LR variants. MEA “[d]oesn't need the LR”, El Hout said, but the company typically opts for models with extra fuel tanks where available because of their higher residual values.

Four A330-900neos will also arrive in Beirut in 2021, potentially enabling route launches to North America if the U.S. eases its restrictions on MEA.

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