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Fixed Wings

Posted 4 October 2019 · Add Comment

After a few turbulent years, Wings of Lebanon is looking for new niches to complement its success in the leisure charter market. Martin Rivers talked to the airline's chief execitive, Naji Majdalani.

As a charter carrier with just one aircraft on its registry, Wings of Lebanon rarely gets the media attention that is afforded to larger, better known airlines in the Middle East.
The company has found itself in the spotlight only twice in recent memory – and management would happily forget both instances.
In 2016, a Boeing 737 carrying the Wings name was photographed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. The sighting sparked outrage in a country that officially remains at war with the Jewish state, and whose leaders are deeply paranoid about Israeli intelligence operations.
Then, last year, Wings had its European Union licence suspended after regulators flagged a series of apparent shortcomings in its flight-training and aircraft maintenance processes.
Despite creating a “big ripple effect politically and socially” in Lebanon, chief executive, Naji Majdalani, said the mishap in Tel Aviv was relatively easy to recover from.
Officials quickly realised that Wings had not, in fact, flown any of its aircraft or crew to Israel. The aircraft at the centre of the scandal was operated by Tailwind Airlines, a Turkish wet-lease provider, and only bore the Lebanese branding because of an earlier, discontinued, contract with Wings.
“That’s forgotten now,” Majdalani said cheerfully.
“The previous management explained everything. They explained that it wasn’t really our aircraft, it wasn’t us operating, and even Tailwind issued an apology letter to the authorities here and to the company. So, it was solved.”
Last year’s EU suspension had the potential to be a bigger problem for Wings, undermining the airline’s safety reputation and throwing its network into chaos just as the peak summer season began.
But those headwinds, too, have now passed. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) gave Wings back its third country operator (TCO) permit in May – the first such reinstatement since the TCO system was introduced – in what amounted to a clean bill of health for the new management.
Wings took advantage of the regulatory scrutiny by successfully completing an International Air Transport Association (IATA) operational safety audit (IOSA) this year.
Majdalani blamed the EU suspension on poor practices by some former employees who had left the company when it was acquired by Nakhal, Lebanon’s biggest tour operator, in 2017.
“EASA judged us on whatever happened from 2009 to 2017,” he explained. “It was a bit of a blow for us buying a company and then losing the TCO. Some of the destinations were hit hard because we didn’t have enough [wet-leased] aircraft to fly to Europe. But this helped us improve quite quickly and now we’re actually stronger than we were before.”
Although the past year has been challenging for the company, he believes IOSA certification will lay to rest any lingering safety concerns and allow management to focus on growth.
“Going through IOSA was a major change… IOSA is quite difficult to obtain,” he noted.
“There’s a lot of requirements, so we had many consultants coming in to help us improve and change. And there was also a culture change that came with that, and a learning curve for how to operate. It’s an extra layer that we wanted to have to improve the quality and the safety of the airline, and we’ve succeeded in that.”
Describing Wings as the “operational” arm of Nakhal, Majdalani said decisions about route development rest solely with the parent company.
Its package holidays fill most of the airline’s seats, though third-party travel agencies are accommodated through block space agreements and ad hoc charters.
Despite not using direct sales channels itself, Wings also has a presence on the global distribution system (GDS) through its partnership with Hahn Air.
Year-round flights are currently operated to Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt and Adana in Turkey, while Antalya and Dalaman in Turkey are served for eight months of the year.
However, it is the European network that generates by far the most business, with a surge in flights to western, central and south-eastern Europe during peak seasons. Demand is so high in the summer that Wings typically deploys two or three additional aircraft on a wet-lease basis.
This summer, for example, Egypt’s Nile Air is operating two Airbus A320s and one A321 from Beirut on behalf of the Lebanese carrier.
“It’s always narrow-bodies [that we wet lease]. It can go from a 319 to a 321 depending on what’s available and what type of business we’re operating,” Majdalani said. “If we have some pilgrimage business we’ll get a 321 because it’s a high-capacity market so we need the bigger aircraft. But, typically, 320s and 737-800s are the major ones we are using.”
Although the strategy provided welcome flexibility during last year’s disruption – wet-leased aircraft are registered to their operating entity and so were exempt from the EU suspension – Wings is keen to induct more of its own metal.
The company re-fleeted with a 2008-build 737-700 shortly after Nakhal acquired it from Lebanon’s El Hajj family two years ago, and management are now actively looking for another aircraft.
“We are thinking of adding soon an extra aircraft,” Majdalani confirmed, giving a probable delivery date of around the end of the year. “It will be next-generation for sure. I have got a -700 and -800 on the table offered to me, and we are still debating which way to go.”
The arrival of a second unit will allow Wings to cut expenditure on wet-lease contracts as well as standardising the on-board experience.
A larger fleet will also give Nakhal the option of adding year-round flights to Berlin (Germany) and Stockholm (Sweden) – markets that will help the company expand into diaspora traffic.
“Eventually the business model has to be kind of a hybrid model, because we are so small and we are a tour operator and we are in a difficult country [geopolitically],” Majdalani said.
“So, we are trying to look at niche markets where we have Lebanese people [living abroad], or even Syrian people who want to use Beirut as a gateway to Damascus. That’s something we’re trying to develop as a niche for the winter, aside from the current destinations we are flying as leisure.”
In an effort to hedge against the “huge seasonality” of the leisure market, Wings also wants to grow its reputation as a provider – rather than a customer – of wet-lease operations.
The company has occasionally offered aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance (ACMI) services in the past, but Majdalani wants this to become a regular activity to boost utilisation rates in the winter. “It will be a kind of start for us in the ACMI market,” he said. “We’re launching to the entire market. I’m already working to wet lease our aircraft for October onwards.”
New opportunities for transfer traffic will also be explored now that Wings has been added to the IOSA registry – a step that allows it to sign interline agreements with IATA members.
“There’s a lot of leisure passengers coming to Beirut and wanting to connect with us to some of our destinations, for example the Greek islands,” the chief executive noted. “They come in on flights from Kuwait or Dubai and they connect on our network. IOSA will be key to growing that interline business.”
Although inbound tourism from Europe would be a “very nice” segment to add to the mix, management are realistic about the “reluctance” of many Europeans to visit the Levant, given its security challenges.
One thing working to their advantage, however, is Lebanon’s benign competitive environment.
The country’s only other active airline is Middle East Airlines (MEA), the flag-carrier, which has adopted a conservative growth strategy under the stewardship of chairman, Mohamad El Hout.
MEA has no plans to enter the charter market and cooperates closely with Wings by providing maintenance services and carrying Nakhal’s customers on its network. Asked about the charter airline’s fleet expansion, El Hout said he “would like to see their activities growing and growing”.
It is a sentiment that is shared wholeheartedly on the Nakhal side.
“We enjoy a very good relationship with Middle East Airlines,” Majdalani affirmed.
“The national carrier flies to certain destinations and we fly to other destinations. We have a different business model altogether, so, honestly, we don’t see them as a competitor. We try to act more as a kind of sister company.”
 

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