With European governments relaxing Covid-19 restrictions by the week despite stubbornly high infection rates, the region’s aviation recovery remains bumpy. While most traffic forecasts for the summer remain upbeat, Omicron’s legacy has been an up-and-down first quarter, as staff absences continue to cause operational headaches for airlines and airports, from cancelled flights to long security queues.
Air France says strong forward bookings mean it is close to restoring pre-pandemic capacity, with a new tie-up with SkyTeam partner Delta to provide a regular “shuttle” service on the Paris to New York route giving a boost to its long-haul business. A revival of routes between the French capital and Dallas, Denver and cities in Canada, Africa, the Caribbean and Asia-Pacific will help bring its network back to 90% of 2019 levels by the middle of the year.
Meanwhile, London’s second airport, Gatwick, is getting back to health after reopening its South Terminal for the first time since its closure in 2020. British Airways short-haul flights – operated by a new semi-independent subsidiary, BA Euroflyer – begin later this year. The flag-carrier pulled out of Gatwick at the start of the pandemic. Fellow IAG airline Vueling is also expanding its services from the airport.
Despite the good news, the lingering impact of Omicron on the sector’s finances can be seen in Ryanair’s latest projections. Europe’s biggest airline in terms of passengers – and for the past two decades one of its most profitable – expects to make a full-year loss of €350-400 million for the year to 31 March. Passenger numbers for the low-cost carrier have recovered to more than 97 million, but that is still well below the 149 million it was carrying before the downturn.
So far, it looks as if Beijing plans to be transparent with the probe into the 21 March crash of a China Eastern Boeing 737 in which all 132 passengers and crew died. US investigators arrived last week to aid the Civil Aviation Administration of China. Both the cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders have been recovered from the accident site, with the damaged CVR being sent to the USA for analysis. A preliminary report is due by 20 April, within 30 days of the crash, as per international conventions.
Troubles continue to mount for Russia’s aviation and aerospace sectors as a result of international sanctions, with two of the country’s flagship aircraft developments on hold, and their entire future in doubt. Production of the Irkut MC-21 – a Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 competitor – has been delayed for two years, while many experts now believe that political tensions will doom, or push many years down the line, the proposed widebody Comac/UAC CR929 – a partnership with China.
The row over payments for hundreds of aircraft leased by Russian airlines looks set to rumble on for some time, with President Putin signing a decree that insists payments will be met in rubles, at the central bank’s official exchange rate, not US dollars. One leading lessor, AerCap, has filed $3.5 billion in insurance claims for assets stranded in Russia that it has terminated agreements on. Prior to sanctions, the Irish company had 135 aircraft and 14 engines on lease with operators in the country.
The fact that little over one in 20 airline pilots are female is relatively well known, with many in the industry resolving to address this cockpit gender imbalance. Women are also largely absent in the airline boardroom, with only a small handful in the most senior leadership roles globally. But this too could be changing, if slowly. Marjan Rintel is about to join a very select group, when the former Dutch railways boss succeeds Pieter Elbers as chief executive of KLM later this year.
Finally, had this story broken three days earlier, some might have thought it a clever April Fool. German leisure airline Condor announced on 4 April that it is to change its livery to one based on yellow, red, blue, green and beige striped beach towels. The carrier says it wants its new brand identity to evoke designs associated with holidays. The first six Condor aircraft will operate with the new colour scheme this summer.
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