The other week I had a bit of what I’d call a minor life wobble, one that prompted a desperate SOS to my 900 or so “friends” on Facebook. The problem, and I admit it was of an entirely First World nature, was that I had lost my favourite drinks coaster, an embroidered circular mat that used to be gifted, in pleasing packs of three, to first-class passengers on Middle East Airlines in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
My parents worked for MEA all their working lives and so these things were absolutely everywhere during my childhood, but 30 years on there was only one left and now even that had mysteriously disappeared. I dug out some wooden coasters someone had given us, but they simply wouldn’t do. Would social media come to the rescue?
It did. Within half an hour, I received a message from a family friend, the daughter of a colleague of my late father. She said she had a few knocking around and that she would happily pop them in an envelope and post them. Well, that was easy.
But there were other messages, from people telling me that these coasters were an integral part of their childhood, “blasts from the past” and so on. A friend in Minnesota even felt compelled to post a photo of one he still uses. So apparently it wasn’t just me. There must be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, still in circulation, protecting tabletops across the diaspora from Freetown to Fremantle.
Fittingly, I also received a message from Makram Alamuddin, the son of Najib Alamuddin, the former MEA chairman under whose watch the mats were introduced. He told me they were originally made by a handicrafts centre in Baakline, the Alamuddin clan’s hometown in the Chouf Mountains. Mr Alamuddin Senior is also famed for banning the practice of serving coffee to visitors at MEA offices as he claimed, quite rightly, that the whole rigmarole wasted time.
But the “Flying Sheikh” was more than just a bean counter. Between 1952 and 1978, he took the newly created airline and fashioned it into a brand that captured the panache and elegance of the newly created Lebanon. MEA was the pre-eminent Arab airline; the envy of the region and, in many ways, benchmark for the high standards set by today’s state-of-the-art GCC carriers.
He was a visionary, a man who would not accept that a Lebanese company had no choice but to be underpinned by the same consensus that defined how the nation was run. He clamped down on favours and sinecures and imposed a culture efficiency and advancement. It was heady stuff and way ahead of its time.
More than one Facebook post bemoaned how a certain elegance had disappeared, to be fair not just from Middle East Airlines, but from air travel in general. This I can vouch for, having just flown to Dublin on something called Ryanair. OK, my return ticket from London Gatwick cost me less than a peak time day return from Brighton to London, but it was nonetheless very basic (you never know how much you need a seat pocket until it’s not there). It made easyJet – which I thought was as “budget” as it got – feel like Cathay Pacific.
But even the major airlines have been packing them in for years. There are now budget economy fares for travellers who either want to travel light; don’t mind foregoing air miles or who are prepared to buy a non-refundable, non-flexible ticket. Meanwhile, Airbus has been busy adding an extra seat to its A380, by making slimmer armrests. Who knew?
Which brings me back to MEA, a company for which any decent branding expert would love to roll up their sleeves and get to work mining the archives to position it as a regional pioneer with a huge legacy. The ultimate boutique airline even. Then again, you could argue that MEA is a hugely profitable company, so why constantly hark back to a golden age that has disappeared and has little relevance to modern air travel?
If he’s lucky, today’s business traveller gets a little bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, socks and an eye mask. MEA gave away beautiful, hand-made intricately designed coasters. I’m trying to figure out when and why things changed.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
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