Middle East Airlines (MEA) is planning a major expansion of its Airbus Industrie fleet following the sale of its three ageing Boeing 747s.

The three Boeing 747-200 Combis, delivered new to the airline in 1975, have been sold to the US freight airline American International Airways (AIA) for conversion to full freighters. The transaction, arranged by Fortis Aviation, will see the three 747s delivered to AIA between June and September.

MEA is boosting its ßeet of leased Airbus A320/A321s and A310s, which will replace its remaining Boeing 707s during 1997. MEA took delivery of its first A320 in January, on lease from International Lease Finance (ILFC), and will take a second, along with two A321s, in the next two months.

Yousef Lahoud, MEA's managing director, says that the airline is planning to add up to six A310-200s from late 1997, and is also aiming to take a decision on its long-term 747 replacements before the end of the year.

"We will take five Pratt & Whitney JT9D-powered A310-200s from Airbus and Singapore Airlines [SIA], beginning in October, to replace the two [ex-KLM] 747-200s we will be returning to ILFC," he says, adding that a sixth A310 acquisition is also being discussed.

Leases on two ex-Wardair Canada A310-300s, with GE Capital Aviation Services/Polaris, are due to expire in September 1998, but these may be extended.

SIA is known to be negotiating with several prospective customers - including MEA and FedEx - to sell its six A310-200s, which are being replaced by the Boeing 777-200. According to market sources, SIA is asking for around $20 million per A310.

For the longer term, Lahoud says that MEA is evaluating larger, longer-range aircraft such as the A330 and Boeing 767-300, with a decision expected to be taken later this year after discussions with the airline's shareholders.

"We hope to start with two aircraft late this year, plus a third in mid-1998, depending on availability," Lahoud says, adding that leasing, possibly with a purchase option, is the favoured method of acquisition .

Source: Flight International