Back in 1945 one engineer and six mechanics took over a small hangar at Lebanon's tiny, if international, air terminal and began to provide maintenance for Middle East Airlines' fleet of three vintage De Havilland biplanes.
Considering the size and importance of MEA at that time—a main route was the Baghdad-Haifa run—that lone engineer and his half dozen mechanics were probably not overworked. Today that small hangar has ballooned into a $5.5-million, 290,635-square-foot complex that encompasses Seattle-scale hangars and a warren of crisply lit shops crammed with delicate electronic instruments and precision tools. The seven-man maintenance team has blossomed too: into a three-shift work force of 1,450 engineers, mechanics and craftsmen. And what was a small operation, even by Lebanese measurements, has grown into an international operation that is probably the most technologically advanced industry in the entire Arab East—the virtual reconstruction of the world's most modern jet aircraft.
Blooming and blossoming of that magnitude do not, of course, occur overnight. But as early as the 1960's there were portents: the U.S. Air Force began to fly in transports all the way from Germany, and when BOAC began to phase out its Comets it was the MEA base that overhauled them prior to re-sale.
MEA is certainly not the only company in the Middle East that can service Boeings. Booming Saudia of Saudi Arabia has a similar capability and so does Kuwait Airways. But both limit major overhauls to their own aircraft, whereas at MEA 40 percent of the base's productive capacity is devoted to outside work, the rental of components, the provision of service teams who fly anywhere and overhauls on private and military aircraft.
Because of MEA's international character—70 airlines use its facilities—its standards have naturally been checked out thoroughly. So far its record is impressive. The Federal Aviation Agency in the United States, the Air Registration Board in Great Britain and the Bureau Veritas in France, as well as civil aviation authorities in Holland, Denmark and nine Arab countries have certified its reliability.
But speed is also vital and MEA provides that too. As soon as an aircraft lands and is trundled into the hangar, a squadron of cranes, jacks, trolleys, access ladders and mobile scaffolding converges on it and workers swarm onto wings, fuselage and tail assembly to begin dismantling it. They strip off flaps, remove the wheel assemblies, hoist out the engines and burrow into the fuselage. In some cases, depending on the condition of the aircraft and the specifications of the job, they virtually gut the plane. Like surgeons removing organs, they disconnect and remove the hundreds of valves, indicators, actuators, generators, gauges, switches, cables, panels, couplings, circuit breakers, solenoids, tanks, lights and wiring on which the safe and efficient performance of a modern aircraft leans so heavily.
As they are removed, other workers pile them on trolleys and trundle them into the labyrinth of shops where specialists in flight systems, instruments, radar, radio, and hydro-pneumatics rebuild, rewire and refurbish each component.
Major renovations—such as structural modifications and a complete facial right down to new paint and upholstery—take MEA six to ten weeks, demand up to 70,000 manhours and cost the earth. Indeed, such maintenance is the largest single direct cost of an airline's seat-mile.
But overhauling also adds 10,000 hours to the life of the plane and the MEA charges, however high, are usually lower than Europe's. More surprisingly, as MEA's latest contract suggests, they are also competitive with the United States, even including the cost of flying empty to and from Lebanon. That contract is to overhaul 25 American Airlines 720B's, many of which will be flown to Beirut from American's base in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and back, a trip of 12,000 air miles.