M.E.A. was formed in 1945 and it was assisted by Pan American up to 1955. Like Kuwait Airways the airline became associated with BOAC. In August 1961 the Corporation sold its shares to M.E.A. and from then on the airline was an independent operator.
In March 1960 the Chairman of the airline – Sheikh Najib Alamuddin – announced an order of four Comets (4Cs) and, in so doing, ended a period of heated argument and debate over the airlines future.
As a BOAC associate company its financial affairs were of public record in Britain. M.P.s had been very critical of the airline and considered its ‘drastic losses’ to be unacceptable.
Some £6 million had been pumped into the carrier because, as Sir George Cribbett, when Chairman of BOAC said,
“it has a very important role to play in the Middle East because these Arab countries are tending more and more to make it difficult for us, as a corporation, to acquire traffic rights.”
At this time BOAC owned 49% of M.E.A. shares. The Corporation had invested £5 million in the airline and the remainder of the Corporations financial input had been put into the engineering division MASCO.
MASCO was later merged into M.E.A. so that the airline could undertake its own maintenance. The Sheikh had wanted Comets and through the Corporation had approached Her Majesty’s Treasury for their approval the Treasury delayed its decision a number of times.
Eventually the Sheikh lost patience and told them that if approval was not forthcoming, within 7 days, he would sever the associate agreement and would go elsewhere and buy Caravelles or Convair 600s. Approval was speedily given. The purchase price of £5.25 million was guaranteed by the British carrier at the request of de Havilland.
M.E.A. operated Comet 4Cs. They were known as the ‘Cedar Jets’ on account of the symbol of the Cedar of Lebanon which appeared on the tail.
Their first Comet was initially allocated the registration OD-ADK however this registration was not taken up and it was registered OD-ADR. This aircraft was delivered on 15th December 1960 – Sheikh Najib having flown over to Hatfield to accept the aircraft on behalf of M.E.A. and he was aboard the Comet on its homeward flight to Beirut. Two months later the second aircraft was handed over (15.2.61) registered OD-ADQ and in March 1961 two more 4Cs joined the fleet; OD-ADS on the 14th and OD-ADT on the 18th.
Before taking delivery of their own aeroplanes, from November 1960, M.E.A. chartered two Comet services from BOAC on the Beirut to London and Dhahran. These charters were operated in order to assess operational procedures. Temporary M.E.A. marking were used on the aircraft for this relatively short-term lease (it lasted until March 1961).
With their own aircraft M.E.A. planned to operate daily services to London from Beirut – the non-stop flight taking 4½ hours. M.E.A. also served many other destinations in the area and had routes to Cairo, Ankara, Istanbul, Athens, Nicosia, Vienna, Geneva, Frankfurt, Rome, Aleppo, Jeddah and Aden, Pakistan and India.
Utilization rates were very good – the Comet proving a great success. As a result of this there was, it was rumoured, the possibility that M.E.A. may buy two more 4Cs – in fact negotiation must have been at an advanced stage because two airframes c/n 6476 and 6477 were allocated to them by de Havilland.
The orders were not followed through because of further financial difficulties. Instead M.E.A. leased Kuwait Airways aircraft to boost their capacity. Incidentally one of these allocated aircraft G-AROV appeared at the Farnborough Airshow in September 1961 fully painted in M.E.A. livery!
Being an area of the world subject to extreme tension and frequent conflict the United Nations had been called upon to station troops in the area as a peace-keeping force. In November 1961 M.E.A. was asked to use its Comets to help move 1,500 Scandinavian troops of the U.N. emergency force from Beirut to Oslo and Copenhagen. On the return flight an equivalent number of fresh troops were returned to the Lebanese capital.
‘Fastest to Beirut’ was a headline appearing in the press in June 1963 heralding M.E.A’s efforts to capture some more of the traffic between London and the Middle East, India and Pakistan. Middle East Air Liban (M.E.A.L.- with which M.E.A. had operating arrangements) had announced that from June 7th it was going to operate a once a week Comet 4C service between London and Beirut. It would leave London every Friday at 11.00 a.m. (local time) – the same time as their other daily flights to Beirut which were routed via Frankfurt, Geneva or Rome. M.E.A. promised it would be ‘the fastest service between the U.K. and Lebanon’. The non-stop flight was scheduled to connect, within two hours, with their Comet flights bound for Kuwait, Karachi, Bombay, Dhahran and Bahrein.
The success of this strategy was to be seen the following April when results for the previous half year were announced. The Comet had been very successful and M.E.A. had increased their flights to London, and those routed via Geneva and were actually taking business off Boeing 707s and DC8s. Again the prospect of buying Comet arose. Sheikh Najib expressed the opinion that if they wanted more Comets they would obtain them. They did not think the Trident had any great advantage over a well amortized Comet, he said,
“the cost of operating the Comet was a little higher but was definitely compensated for by their excellent performance.”
In November 1965 M.E.A. expanded when it merged with Air Liban. The new company was known as M.E.A. Airliban. Further expansion came in 1969 with the absorption of Lebanese International.
A sudden and totally unexpected loss occurred in December 1968. On the 28th there was an Israeli commando attack on Beirut international Airport in revenge for a Palestinian attack on an El Al Boeing 707 at Athens. Many aircraft were deliberately destroyed on the ground by the Commandos including 3 Comets (OD-ADR, ‘ADQ and ‘ADS), a new Boeing 707, a leased VC 10, two Caravelles and a Viscount. Also badly affected were Lebanese International Airlines (who lost a leased Convair 990 and a DC-7) and Trans Mediterranean Airways (who lost a DC-4 and DC-6A).
Fortunately the aircraft were fully insured with Lloyds of London and all but 3% of the losses were recovered. During this difficult time M.E.A. leased all three Kuwait Airways Comets (which coincidentally were being phased out of service – see above).
By 1973 all M.E.A. Comet operations had ceased. The loss of the three Comets in the Israeli attack came at a time when the Comets were beginning to loose their pecuniary advantage. Having leased Kuwaiti Comets for the short term it was decided it was time to re-equip with more modern aircraft. The remaining Comet 4C was sold to Dan-Air In October 1973 but was actually never flown by them.