The 737 Max grounding – which pre-dated the pandemic by a year – ended in late 2020, but China, one of its main markets, still bans the type. Production of the 787 remains halted over quality issues, while the 777X is still at least a year from flying its first passengers. The string of calamities has shone a spotlight on engineering and management culture at what was the industry’s biggest company.
Now the US Department of Transportation has taken the unusual step of launching an audit of the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of 737 and 787 production. After the two fatal crashes that saw the Max taken out of service, some accused the FAA of allowing Boeing to mark its own homework. Now the regulator’s own ability to mark that homework is under scrutiny, a move that piles on more humiliation for both agency and airframer.
Many believed the widebody sector would take years to return to pre-pandemic levels, if it ever did. Robust demand in recent months has dispelled much of that concern, and a number of carriers have been rapidly restoring capacity and unveiling new interior concepts for a growing sub-category of ultra-long-haul, point-to-point travel. They include Qantas, whose Project Sunrise Airbus A350-1000s, will take passengers directly from London and New York to Australian east coast cities.
Now Air New Zealand has revealed its latest cabin feature designed for those exceptionally long-distance flights – full-length, bunk-bed-type sleep pods in the economy class of its 787-9s. The move is unusual in that – while premium travelers have long enjoyed lie-flat business class suites to make their journey more bearable – ANZ will offer these beds to those in the main cabin. How it will allocate them, and at what price, the carrier still has to explain.
In North America, as in Europe, staff shortages amid rising passenger numbers remain the biggest problem. In the USA, where this weekend was set to be the busiest of the year, start-up Breeze Airways admitted it had made “significant schedule adjustments”, including suspending routes and delaying the introduction of others. North of the border, Air Canada said it was removing 10% of flights – or 77 round trips – in July and August in an effort to cope with operational challenges.
In Africa, the difficulties of North American airlines might seem like nice ones to have. The aviation sector struggles for a number of reasons: there are too many weak national airlines, propped up by governments keen to maintain their own domestic flag-carrier, and few strong enough to establish pan-African networks or the sort of long-haul hubs seen in Europe and the Middle East. Air traffic management over a colossal land mass is fragmented and of variable quality.
In a market where no states have the deep pockets of a Gulf emirate, consolidation could be the key. Two of the best-known operators, Kenya Airways and South African Airways are discussing establishing a partnership that would connect some of the continent’s biggest cities and start to end the scenario where flying from Johannesburg to Lagos or Nairobi to Casablanca is often more convenient via a non-African hub.
Their vision is to create a group similar to British Airways-led IAG or the Latin American tie-up between Avianca and Gol. Speaking at the recent IATA AGM in Doha, Kenya Airways chief executive Allan Klavuka said such a move would be “game-changer in the African aviation space”. The problem is the market is still small as a proportion to population. How much bigger it would be if connections were cheaper and easier, and airlines better able to invest, is the big question.
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