There’s a journalistic aphorism that readers will always be drawn to the headline “Man bites dog” over “Dog bites man”. So the cancellation by Airbus of Qatar Airways’ order for 50 A321s – amid a long running dispute over alleged surface flaws on the A350 – is one of the week’s most intriguing stories. Airlines delaying or pulling out of commitments for aircraft is not uncommon, especially in a downturn. But for it to happen the other way round shows how toxic this row has become.
Qatar’s veteran chief executive Akbar Al Bakar is one of the industry’s most controversial characters. Highly regarded for his leadership qualities and vision in turning what was a tiny national carrier into one of the world’s biggest airline brands, he can also be outspoken, and appears to relish playing Airbus and Boeing off against each other. As a hugely important customer of both, he will be reckoning on coming out on top in any game of brinkmanship with Toulouse.
After two years of Covid-19 devastation, it is strange to see other issues start to plague airlines. For US carriers, one that seemed a far-off memory in 2020 has returned – the pilot shortage. Regional airlines especially are having operations disrupted because they lack flight crew. While some of this is down to staff having to stay home because of Omicron, accelerated retirements and recruitment freezes during the pandemic’s peak have fed through to severe cockpit shortages today.
The roll-out of the USA’s 5G network has also created a serious, but likely short-term, challenge for airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration has banned pilots from landing during bad weather at many airports because of worries that signals from nearby phone masts could affect avionics. Blamed on the right hand not talking to left within the government, it has led to flight cancellations, but, after talks between equipment makers and wireless providers, the stand-off is being resolved.
A reminder that, even in the USA, the sector is not out of the Covid-19 woods comes with the latest financial results from United Airlines and American Airlines, both of which stayed in the red in 2021 as Omicron hit passenger numbers in the final quarter. With border restrictions continuing to affect international operations, American and United are now predicting that recovery to 2019 levels will not happen until 2023, despite earlier hopes that the milestone would be achieved earlier.
Remember the incident last year when a Ryanair service from Athens to Vilnius was forced to divert to Belarusian capital Minsk after authorities warned the captain of an on-board security risk? Upon landing, a Belarusian passenger – a dissident living in Lithuania – was arrested. The US Department of Justice has now charged four named Belarusian officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy, a crime that comes with a heavy jail sentence if any are convicted in a US court.
Finally, is India’s aviation market set to fulfil its potential? Despite being one of the most populated countries with a huge middle class, India is arguably poorly served with air links, both domestic and international. It has proved a ripe territory for Gulf-based carriers – many Indians work in the region or use its hubs to connect to the world – and at least two UK start-ups are hoping to exploit demand for connecting the diaspora there with low-cost flights to secondary cities.
However, the years before the pandemic saw a number of new carriers emerge in India itself. Budget airline Akasa is the latest to join the fray, with its boss Vinay Dube enthusiastic about the opportunity to fly many Indians who have never set foot in an airliner. Believing that Covid-19 is a “short-term blip”, he adds that increasing levels of disposable income, and an “under-penetration” by existing airlines could lead to decades of rapid expansion for aviation in the country.
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