The launch of vaccine programmes around the world may have lifted hopes that the end to the worst crisis aviation has faced may be in sight. But no one should be under the delusion that recovery will be rapid. In fact, with many countries tightening lockdown rules and travel restrictions as infection rates soar and new more easily-transmissible Covid-19 variants emerge, the industry is entering 2021 facing challenges as deep as any in the previous 10 months.
After a “tepid” third quarter improvement, latest figures from the International Air Transport Association – for November – show air travel demand as measured by revenue passenger-kilometres down 70% on 2020. International services fell 88%. With many parts of the world experiencing a deadly third wave of Covid cases, it is likely to be the second quarter at least – more than a full year into the pandemic – before those figures start to turn in the right direction.
European low-cost carrier Ryanair, bullish about a tourist summer “invasion” of Mediterranean beaches a few weeks ago on news of vaccine roll-outs, cut a gloomier tone this week, cutting its estimate for passengers carried in 2020 from 35 million to less than 30 million. The airline blames new stay-at-home rules in the UK and other countries, and said these would affect its schedules until the end of its fiscal year on 31 March.
Its no-frills rival easyJet was equally downbeat, announcing on 6 January that it was paring back its operations to provide “essential connectivity” on UK domestic routes and a handful of international services. Normally, at this time of the year, easyJet and Ryanair narrowbodies would be packed with skiers hitting the slopes, as well as students and other travellers returning from festive breaks with families.
easyJet is among those airlines that have been urging governments to introduce rapid testing to enable passengers to return to the skies. While current lockdowns make these largely pointless, the UK has become the latest country to state that international visitors will be required to present a negative Covid-19 test prior to departure. Although many questions remain about the practicality of such programmes, they may be one route to unlocking air travel demand as restrictions ease.
One factor of fewer flights in 2020 must have been a dramatic fall in airline accident fatalities – or so you might have thought. In fact, deaths in air crashes were just as high as in some recent years, according to analysis by FlightGlobal. There were 12 fatal accidents in 2020, resulting in 332 deaths, compared with 22 fatal accidents and 297 deaths the previous year, when there were at least four to five times the number of flights.
Two phenomena were largely to blame. Three of the four fatal jet accidents were down to poorly planned, badly executed approaches in serviceable aircraft and in conditions that should not have been a problem. The other was shoot-downs, with the worst incident being the downing of a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 in January 2020, en route from Tehran to Kiev. Iranian military misidentified the aircraft as hostile and fired two missiles, killing all 176 on board.
When recovery comes, what new aircraft types might pilots be flying. Remember the Dornier 328 turboprop, an aircraft that ceased production around the turn of the millennium? A start-up, Deutsche Aircraft, plans to relaunch the regional transport as the D328eco, a stretched and re-engined version of its twentieth century predecessor. The Leipzig-based company is planning certification for 2025.
One type that might take longer to enter service – despite being launched in 2007 – is the Mitsubishi SpaceJet. After the Japanese firm froze the development last year, US customer Aerolease Aviation is the latest to formally cancel its order. The troubles and multi-billion dollar losses of the regional jet programme illustrate that, while Japan may have one of the most sophisticated manufacturing industries in the world, breaking into the closed shop of aircraft makers is trickier than it sounds.
There were few good news stories in 2020. One of them was the normalisation of relations between Israel and several Arab countries, opening new air routes between Tel Aviv and the Gulf. Now, another festering dispute that had impacted flights in the region looks as if it has also been settled. The lifting of a three-year blockade on Qatar Airways flights will allow the Doha carrier to again over-fly its Gulf neighbours, and may soon lead to the resumption of air links.
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