In a few weeks’ time Boeing will mark the tenth anniversary of the first commercial flight of its 787, arguably one of the most innovative aircraft ever designed. Built largely from composite materials, in a different way to any previous airliner, and with a host of unique features, the Dreamliner was an about-turn from Seattle’s former long-haul project – the super-fast Sonic Cruiser – prompted by a perceived need in the market for economy over speed.
However, while the 787 can be considered a success for Boeing in many ways, the troubled US manufacturer has faced and still faces a number of challenges with the programme, many of which have been overshadowed by the high-profile 737 Max crisis. Not the least of these was the well-catalogued struggle to bring it to market in the 2000s, the result of an outsourced supply network that was not robust enough to cope.
Despite that, the 787 became the fastest-selling widebody, as airlines opted for an efficient mid-size airliner that allowed more point-to-point flights. By contrast, its contemporary, the Airbus A380, failed because there were not enough hub-to-hub routes to make such a thirsty giant viable. But not all are convinced the 787 has lived up to its potential, particularly on maintenance costs and quality issues, and time will tell whether it can maintain its sales momentum in the post-pandemic era.
Boeing, on the ropes since 2019 from the double punch of the pandemic and the Max grounding, is optimistic about the market as we emerge from the downturn, particularly in China, where it predicts a need for 8,700 new aircraft by 2040. The 8,700 figure represents almost half of the total amount of deliveries forecast for the entire Asia-Pacific region, underlining the importance of the People’s Republic to the industry’s fortunes.
Perhaps the main threat to that bullish outlook will be geopolitics – a hardening of bilateral relations between Washington and Beijing that could stop Boeing, and perhaps Airbus too, selling to Chinese airlines. Like Covid-19, these black swan moments are impossible to foresee, so tend to get overlooked by forecasters. But as the 1970s oil crisis, the fall of communism, 9/11, and the global financial crash show, they tend to pop up with unfailing regularity every decade or so.
Should governments – or taxpayers to be more precise – stump up compensation for airlines’ lost revenue as a result of domestic lockdowns and border closures? After all, most airlines were doing very well until March 2020, when politicians either forced them to ground flights, or made it almost impossible for them to generate passenger revenue. The industry’s combined losses since then run into the tens of billions.
El Al is one carrier that thinks they should. The Israeli flag-carrier is demanding $100 million from the state because of the damage politicians’ decisions have done to the airline’s operations. In a letter to the finance ministry, the privately-owned carrier admits “it is no secret that El Al is in the deepest crisis in its history”, adding that it has had to axe almost 2,000 staff, a third of its workforce, and scale back its fleet from 45 to 29 aircraft.
Another airline wrestling with the impact of the pandemic is British Airways. The carrier’s main base is, of course, Heathrow, but it has long had a secondary operation at London’s second airport, Gatwick. Over the years, this has switched from a long-haul hub fed by domestic connections, from a dedicated terminal, to one serving both UK and European cities, often in direct competition with the airport’s biggest tenant, low-cost airline EasyJet.
BA’s Gatwick business has been in hibernation since March 2020, and the airline had proposed relaunching it, but under the guise of a new subsidiary, which it would run on a tighter cost structure. However, these plans have been abandoned because BA failed to reach agreement with pilots’ union BALPA. It now intends to seek “alternative uses” for its valuable slots, and will only retain a handful of domestic and long-haul, mostly leisure, services.
While the airline world has been hunkered down for much of the past 18 months, another sector of aviation has been extremely busy. Developers of electric vertical take-off and landing platforms, or eVTOLs, have been seeking customers, partners and financial backers, convinced that a new urban air mobility (UAM) segment will be an environmentally-friendly and lifestyle-enhancing solution to inner-city congestion.
Often dismissed as quirky start-ups with little chance of bringing their concepts to market, many are now demanding to be taken seriously, thanks to a recent flurry of high-profile announcements. This week, Germany’s Volocopter said it had secured orders for 150 eVTOLs from Aerofugia, a unit of China’s Geely Technology. Meanwhile, Brazilian airline Gol will acquire 250 of Vertical Aerospace’s in-development VA-X4 from lessor Avolon.
Meanwhile, Airbus this week unveiled its CityAirbus Next Gen concept, the group’s foray into UAMs, with plans to fly a four-seat prototype in 2023. Some believe UAMs will be bigger than helicopters in a few years, but crucial questions remain, beyond the usual ones around financing and certification. Most notably, will regulators allow these to fly freely in urban airspace, particularly if, as some see it, autonomous flight – without the need for a professional pilot – is their only route to viability.