Myanma Air signs nearly $1bn plane leasing deal

The main terminal building at Yangon International Airport Burma's aviation industry is benefiting from huge tourist interest

Burma's national carrier has signed a nearly $1bn (£584m) deal to lease 10 new Boeing 737 jets as it looks to revamp and expand its ageing fleet.

Myanma Airways will be working with GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS), the world's largest leasing company, to upgrade its planes and flight routes.

The state-run company flies mainly within Burma, also known as Myanmar.

GECAS - a unit of US conglomerate General Electric - said the aircraft would be delivered by 2020.

"We are pleased at GE to work with Myanma Airways to provide new, state-of-the-art Boeing aircraft," GECAS president and chief executive Norman Liu said in a statement.

"This is an important milestone for the airline and for the development of Myanmar's aviation industry."

Myanma Airways currently operates the smaller Beechcraft and Cessna plans, as well as Fokker F28jets and ATR turboprops.

The carrier plans to expand its international routes to Japan and South Korea. Currently, its only external flight is to Buddhist pilgrim destination Gaya in India.

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Analysis

Proof that Burma's aviation sector is expanding rapidly can be seen in the back pages of the weekly newspapers. Two full pages are dedicated to listing all the domestic and international flights.

A few years ago if you wanted to fly to Rangoon you would almost certainly have had to transit through Bangkok. Now there are direct links with, among others, Tokyo, Doha and Seoul.

Closer to home low-cost carriers both local and from Thailand have been testing the economic viability of new, more unlikely routes. For example it's now possible to fly every day from the small Thai border town of Mae Sot to Rangoon and once a week from Mandalay to Chiang Mai.

For the most part Burma's dated airport infrastructure is struggling to keep up. There is a state of the art airport in the capital, Naypyitaw, but it lies unused. For the few who do fly from there, the entire process of check-in to gate takes just five minutes. The departure board also lists just a couple of commercial flights each day.

Burmese government officials and Boeing representatives signed the deal at the Singapore Airshow, Asia's biggest aerospace and defence show, on Tuesday.

The deal has a list price of $960m and will see leasing company GECAS rent the Boeing aircraft to Myanma Airways in exchange for a monthly payment.

US ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell reportedly said the agreement was the "largest commercial sale" by a US company to Burma in decades.

Burma has only recently opened up its economy, triggering a tourist boom in the once-isolated country.

As a result, domestic carriers such as Myanma Airways have had to upgrade their planes to meet the spectacular growth and improve a spotty safety record.

Foreign carriers have also been looking to cash in on the lucrative market either by setting up routes there or through joint ventures.

Last year, Japan's biggest airline All Nippon Airways bought a 49% stake in Burma's Asian Wings Airways.

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