Skepticism greeted forecasts from CAE and others in late 2020 that a Covid-19-devastated industry that had spent much of that year shedding jobs would soon be recruiting hard again. One union even advised young people that now was not the time to embark on a pilot career. However, the bullish predictions have proved largely accurate. The airline and airport sector has found itself with thousands of vacancies – including flight crew – as a result of a faster than expected recovery.
It is not just pilots, of course. Airlines are struggling to find enough cabin and ground crew. At many European airports, there are too few baggage loaders, air traffic controllers and security staff. Covid-19 absences compound the problem. It has led to weeks of negative headlines, with airlines accused of scheduling more flights than they can operate. Carriers, in turn, level blame at governments for swithering on travel rules, and being slow to provide security clearance for new employees.
After almost two years of grounded aircraft, many might consider coping with a bow wave in demand as a nice problem. However, the potential reputational damage on the sector is enormous. Newspapers and social media in the UK and elsewhere in Europe have been full of stories of families stranded at airports after flights were cancelled at less than an hour’s notice, and passengers having to stump up for new flights or hotel rooms after struggling for hours to contact airline helplines.
All eyes now are on whether the aviation sector can staff-up in time for the inevitable surge in traffic this summer. Airlines have taken some steps to remove capacity, but the outlook is not good. New employees must receive training and pilots have to be type-approved. Additionally, at the back of every executive’s mind is the possibility that a new variant could spark further travel restrictions or a wave of nervous passengers cancelling bookings. Now is not a good time to be an industry planner.
While the latest travel chaos has affected US airlines less, they too have had their share of operational challenges over the past 12 months. Delta Air Lines chief executive Ed Bastian remains optimistic about air travel demand in the post-recovery period. Speaking on 1 June at a Bernstein Strategic Decisions conference, he predicted that flight activity will “settle out at a higher level” than 2019, with more consumers keen “to invest” in travel experiences after two years’ of restrictions.
Airbus handed over its final A380 last year to its most loyal customer Emirates. The original Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747, is still in production, but only just. Last week, freight operator Atlas Air took on the first of four remaining 747-8Fs it has scheduled for delivery in 2022. It brings one step closer the end of more than 52 years of production of what is arguably the most recognizable and famous airliner of all time.
However, as one type enters the history books, another is set to come onto the market. At the opposite end of the scale from the Jumbo Jet, Embraer is moving closer to an official launch for its regional turboprop that will compete with the ATR 72 and De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400. Late last week, the Brazilian manufacturer’s chief executive Francisco Gomes Neto said: “We believe we will be ready by Q1 2023.”
In an era of rising fuel prices, the turboprop will give Embraer customers an alternative to the E2 family of large regional jets – the aircraft are likely to share a common fuselage. Embraer would pitch a 70-seat variant largely at US airlines operating ageing 50-seat jets, while the company thinks a 90-seater would be more popular in other regions of the world. It also believes the turboprop could be refined to run on hydrogen as early as the first half of the 2040s.
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