TBY talks to Riad Mikaoui, CEO of TMA, about regional realities, current operations, and company restructuring.

Riad Mikaoui
Riad Mohamad Mikaoui has been the CEO of Trans Mediterranean Airways (TMA) since 2012. A long career of senior positions has included General Manager of Middle East Airlines (MEA) aircraft maintenance subsidiary, Mideast Aircraft Services Company (MASCO), as well as Head of the Operations and Flight Operations Department at MEA. He held captaincy from 1975-2004 in the same company on Boeing 747-type aircraft as well as the Airbus fleet operated by the company. Other roles included the presidency of HMS Aviation, and Chairman and General Manager of charter carrier MenaJet Lebanon from 2004-2006. He was decorated by the Lebanese President and awarded the commander rank of the National Order of the Cedar.

How has Trans Mediterranean Airways (TMA) evolved since its foundation in 1953?

Between 1972 and 1980, TMA was the only Lebanese cargo airline flying worldwide, reaching Alaska, the US, Japan, and China, among many other destinations. Sold amid worsening political conditions, operations were suspended until 2005, when a bank purchased the airline. The new owner started restructuring the airline, and in 2009 it resumed operations. TMA is now in a comprehensive restructuring phase encompassing both technical and human dimensions.

As a leader in cargo transportation, how would you evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the sector in Lebanon?

TMA is the designated Lebanese national cargo carrier, and our structure is based on a business plan prepared by Lufthansa Consulting. The plan takes into consideration the cargo hubs in Europe and Dubai, where Lebanon is only considered a transit point and not a major cargo hub. When we started in 2009, TMA was ranked 10th among airlines carrying cargo in and out of Lebanon, yet we have since risen to second place, behind Middle East Airlines (MEA), which owns a larger fleet.

How extensive are your operations in Lebanon?

Currently, and during the restructuring phase, we are rebuilding our network and plan to increase aircraft utilization for the two planes operated by TMA to 550 flying hours per month. We introduced the first Boeing 767-300 ERSF cargo aircraft in December 2012. Given sufficient demand in 2015, we will introduce a second Boeing 767, and a third aircraft in 2016. We launched twice-weekly flights to China and Central/Western Africa on October 23, 2013.

What are your main routes today?

Today, we operate four weekly scheduled flights to Kuwait City and Dubai in the Gulf, and Benghazi and Tripoli in North Africa. We also have routes from Beirut to Paris Charles De Gaulle, Milan, and Amsterdam.

Who uses these services the most, and what sector has the greatest growth potential?

Practically, we work through forwarders and agents, including well-known forwarders such as DHL Global, Expeditors International, and Fast Mondial. TMA enjoys an excellent relationship with its freight forwarders, and this plays an important role in ensuring our aircraft are fully utilized.

How would you assess your fleet?

We are not purchasing any new aircraft during the restructuring phase. Right now, it is very costly, and we are evaluating the best aircraft for our network. The study conducted by Lufthansa Consulting found that the current volume of cargo on our network and routes requires the introduction of the Boeing 767-300 ERSF, which is a long-range aircraft that is larger than the Airbus A300-600, and offers 10 tons of extra capacity.

Who are your regular charter customers?

The charter business today is a lucrative one; we dedicated half of our fleet in order to increase aircraft utilization. As we introduce routes to China and Africa, the charter business will be reduced; regardless, we will continue with that activity, since it is profitable and gives us the opportunity to fly worldwide. Mercedes-Benz and Renault are TMA clients to transport spare parts.

You talk about the fact that Lebanon is not a central hub but a transit point. How are you working to make it more central?

We are working on it, but we are not like a point-to-point national passenger carrier. The national carriers are obliged to fly passengers here with well-loaded cargo holds. TMA, as a pure cargo company, is selected by clients that need to ship huge quantities of goods. However, where the network is more concentrated beyond Beirut, there are business opportunities. On the other hand, as a national carrier, we insist on maintaining our schedule to Beirut to satisfy our Lebanese clients.

What is the outlook for TMA and the logistics sector in Lebanon?

I think the logistics sector in Lebanon is advancing amid constant growth. TMA has a future and we have developed a business plan for the period up to 2017. The cargo sector is growing. We have seen four fold growth from 900 tons per month in 2009 to 2,700 tons in March 2013.