x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Underwhelmed on a Middle East Airlines flight

Middle East Airlines is far from a boutique carrier. In fact it makes easyJet look like Etihad in comparison.

Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s national carrier, is a well run company. According to the airline’s website no financial statements have been released for 2013, but in 2012 it posted a net profit of US$58 million in an increase of 44 per cent on the meagre $40.4m it made in 2011. I say “meagre” because in 2009, arguably Lebanon’s best year since the end of the civil war in 1975, MEA racked up a net profit of $118.1m, before it dipped to $90.6m in 2010. Then Syria happened.

The chairman Mohamad El Hout, appointed by the airline’s owners the Central Bank in 1998, has proved his doubters wrong by restructuring the once-pioneering airline, buying new aircraft and making it profitable. Throw in MEA’s relatively high prices and it should be the region’s boutique carrier. But despite a healthy bottom line, the performance of the brand, and in particular the level of service, has never matched that of the balance sheet. The only glamour MEA projects is that of an ageing film star still trying to convince the world she’s still got what it takes.

I say all this because last week I flew to Beirut from London on MEA and the experience was anything but boutique. In fact it made easyJet, the low-cost carrier I flew with to France a week earlier, look like Etihad Airways in comparison. At least easyJet made no bones about what it was and did it well. The staff were cheery and efficient and brooked no nonsense or antisocial behaviour. You’d have to clip electrodes to my nether regions and flick the switch before I would say the same about the cabin crew on ME 202.

The flight, which was full and with a higher than usual compliment of small children, all of whom appeared to be in the grip of a massive sugar rush, was forced to sit on the tarmac for more than an hour before take-off. Lebanese parents are not famed for their discipline and the mother on the row of seats across the aisle from me did nothing to stop her two bored kids trying to dismantle the in-flight entertainment system before deciding it might be a wheeze to continuously open and then snap shut the seatbelt clasps. The stewardess walked by on more than one occasion and did nothing.

When we did get going, the cabin crew appeared to make up for lost time by practically throwing the dinner trays at the passengers. There was also an inexplicable departure from convention, not to mention logic, when the food trolley preceded the drinks trolley, leaving passengers with two options: wait for a drink and let the food go cold or tuck in and run the risk of finishing dinner before the drinks trolley arrived.

Am I nitpicking? When I am paying nigh on $1,000 for a ticket on a four-hour flight I expect the basics to be done well. So when I pointed out to the stewardess that I didn’t really want a drink any more as I had finished my meal, she shrugged at my apparent ingratitude, said it was a “full flight” and moved on.

It’s not the first time I have seen MEA’s veneer of polish crumble under a bit of pressure. The cabin crew could have been plucked from central casting. They were all very pretty and magnificently groomed, but all this counts for nought if they don’t smile. It’s their job to be enthusiastic.

I wanted this to be more than just a rant about a bad flight. MEA is another example of unfulfilled Lebanese potential. It should be more than just an overpriced taxi service for expats who use it because they can behave how they like and staffed by defeated young ladies, many of whom I doubt are imbued with a genuine love for the job. The money is there, the fleet is new and the pilots are among the best trained in the region. With better service, a positive attitude and the will to control the cabin, MEA can be a powerful ambassador and a reflection of Lebanon’s colourful diversity and generosity of spirit.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut

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