As the Covid-19 crisis grinds on for the airline industry – with a new slew of pre-Christmas travel restrictions imposed around the world in response to the Omicron variant – it seems government action rather than a reluctance to return to the skies is the main brake on recovery. That is encouraging, for it suggests that, the instant rules are relaxed, corporate and leisure customers start booking tickets again.
This, at least, is the view of International Air Transport Association head Willie Walsh, who suggested this week that consumers were “learning to live with the virus” more easily than politicians, and are keen to travel despite the obstacle course of tests, vaccine certificates and masks required for many journeys. Even the World Health Organization – always alert to the threat of new variants – has cast doubt on the wisdom of blanket bans on travel from countries where Omicron was first detected.
What this means is that – despite the likes of India this week extending its international flight ban into January over worries about importing Omicron cases – the industry is a lot less panicked than it was about the impact of Delta, when that variant began spreading rapidly in early 2021. We have not seen a sustained dip in the stocks of airlines or aerospace suppliers and no major players have changed their largely optimistic outlooks for next year.
Some countries have continued with plans to reopen borders. Vietnam, for instance, is hugely dependent on tourism and international trade, and describes the move – from 15 December – as “necessary” for economic recovery. Initially, international flights will be permitted to operate through Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to and from nine selected cities, most in the Asia-Pacific region, but including Los Angeles. A second step, in January, will extend the number of destinations.
We have written before about how, paradoxically, the pandemic has seen a number of airlines that looked doomed in 2019 gain a new lease of life. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the crisis levelled the playing field – successful, well-financed carriers were subject to the same bans on flying as their ailing rivals, buying them time. Secondly, Covid-19 has given governments an excuse to step in with fiscal support or restructuring help for struggling operators.
There have even been plenty of airlines launched or that have commenced flying since March 2020, including Norse Atlantic in Norway, Flypop, a UK airline offering low-cost flights to India, Breeze Airways in the USA, and Iceland’s Play. The latest is Vancouver-based Jetlines, whose chief executive claims the pandemic has created a “rare opportunity” for airline start-ups because aircraft prices and leasing rates have plunged, while fixed costs have remained stable.
Perhaps one sure sign of an industry getting back to normal is the return of spats between airlines and the two big manufacturers. One of the most heated is that between Qatar Airways and Airbus, with the Doha-based carrier accusing Toulouse of supplying A350s with skin paint that has deteriorated rapidly. It has grounded the type as a result. Airbus denies there is a serious issue and is taking legal action against its customer to defend its reputation and that of its flagship widebody.
Meanwhile, Boeing has been suffering a string of problems with its programmes, from returning the long-grounded 737 Max to service to delays with bringing its 777X to certification. A series of quality issues mean production of its 787 has been erratic too, and now American Airlines says it is having to cut its 2022 international schedule due to late deliveries of the Dreamliner, including 13 examples the carrier says were due to be in its fleet by this winter.
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