Lebanon's national carrier, Middle East Airlines, known as MEA, has a particularly rich history and currently operates a modern fleet of Airbus jets throughout the area and to cities across Europe, the Middle East, with a handful of long-haul routes to West Africa. It is a byword for good service and reliability and is a member of the SkyTeam alliance.
I visited Lebanon twice in the past, once in 2006 and again in 2017 but I had never flown their flag carrier MEA. After reading an excellent historic article about MEA surviving through the Lebanese civil war and with MEA flying their new A321neo to Dubai numerous times a day, my interest in MEA has grown tremendously. A trip to Lebanon again is on my travel agenda.
My trip to Beirut started from Dubai Int'l Airport. I chose a mid-week daytime departure. Check-in was a breeze. Business Class passengers can use the Skyteam Lounge in Dubai T1.
The lounge was not crowded during the day as there were only 2 Skyteam airlines departing at 12pm (MEA and SAUDIA). However, I've been to the same lounge in the evening and it was very crowded. There is a good choice of food to enjoy in the lounge.
MEA Cedar Jet 427 to Beirut
Dubai was getting really hot at 42 degrees Celsius so people were flying out for their summer escape. The mid-week departure on MEA is quiet, with only about 80 passengers. MEA flies at least 2 flights a day to Dubai regularly. The evening departure is usually with the larger A330-200.
MEA started receiving new A321neo during COVID in July 2020 including the 10,000th A320 family built. They now operate 9 new A321neo.
Seating wise it has 28 recliner Business Class seats and 133 Economy Class seats. With a total of just 161 seats, this is a lower density A321. There are no flatbeds in Business Class. Some of the A321neo flights are 4-5 hours such as to London and Paris.
Pre-departure beverage is juice only. Champagne and wine are available after takeoff.
I estimate the leg room is about 45" pitch which is better than most domestic First Class services in the U.S.
The recliner has a decent recline but of course, it is harder to get out if you're sitting by the window.
We took off on-time, flew over Dubai's Palm Jumeirah then over the Persian Gulf towards Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria and then Lebanon.
What's interesting is that MEA is a handful of airlines that are allowed to fly over Syria which saves about 30 minutes of flying time compared to other airlines (Emirates/FlyDubai) on the same route.
The in-flight service started quickly after we reached cruising altitude. There was no printed menu.
Appetizers included a choice of grilled prawn or pineapple chicken. I chose the grilled prawn which is delicious.
Main course was between Beef Kofte, fish and a vegetarian choice. I chose the beef kofte with rice.
MEA serve Lebanese wine from Ksara Valley. I tried the red wine which is quite strong and dry.
After the meal, a round of digestive, dessert, coffee and tea was offered. The service was fast and I finished the 3-course meal in 1.5 hours.
I also checked out the meals in Economy. I was told the meal tray has been cut to half in size but the food portion is kept the same. There was choice of Kofte or fish. I must say they look quite good! Food and hospitality is MEA's strength.
The Economy Class has RECARO seats with a large touch-screen PTV. I tried out the seat, the recline is deep and the leg room is 31-32".
The desert landscape finally faded when we crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon. On our final approach, passengers on the left-hand side of the plane was greeted by the dramatic coastline view of Beirut. It reminded me of Hong Kong.
My impression of my first MEA flight was a positive one.
The strength of this boutique airline is the hospitality and food. The A321neo is new with good IFE and it also has Wi-Fi. However, the cabins lack of branding and the recliner in Business Class felt a little old school on a modern plane.
MEA will be the launch customer of A321XLR. So hopefully it will have a better product for longer flights.
About Lebanon - Current Economic Crisis
The official exchange rate of 1 USD = Approx 1,500 LBP
The black market exchange rate of 1 USD = Approx 29,000 LBP, almost 20 times difference.
Advice: Do not use your credit card to purchase anything in Lebanese Pound as you will get charged by the official exchange rate. Bring cash and change at many exchanges on the street.
For example, a dinner of 8 people costs 2,975,000 LBP which is about 110 USD in the black market exchange rate. If you use credit card, you'd be charged nearly 2,000 USD at the official exchange rate!
Has Lebanon become cheaper for tourists? Yes and No. The hotel charges are in USD. Some of the entrance tickets to tourist attractions are charged in LBP, so they became very cheap.
Watch out for the hyperinflation as food, and fuel prices all surged since the LBP became devalued.
(below is written by Charles Kennedy, who visited Beirut with me on the same trip)
There is so much to see — the three Bs are the seaside town of Byblos that the Bible is named after, the mountain palace of Beit Ehdein, and the Roman ruins of Baalbek. On top of that is the big B, Beirut, for walking, shopping, dining and museums. The ancient coastal city of Saida’s ancient markets and alleys, guarded by a crusader castle, is worth a day’s visit too.
Is Lebanon safe to go? Yes, I felt quite safe as a tourist. The crime wave caused by the financial crisis amounts to a few snatched mobile phones.
Lebanon is not currently experiencing a golden age, with the currency almost worthless, the banking system in tatters, and the state unable to even provide electricity (most homes are run by private generators).
But this nation of four million clever, cultured and entrepreneurial citizens still gets up every morning and spring to life — commerce, traffic, family, romance, recreation. Perhaps the current crisis is an opportunity to create a new system that will deliver for its citizens and even provide a template for other societies. Definitely, a country to watch and return to again.