By the time it made its first public appearance 15 years ago, Boeing’s 787 had become the fastest selling widebody of all time. However, in recent years, the fortunes of the all-composite Dreamliner have waned, with quality concerns forcing a halt to deliveries for most of the past 21 months. That ended when American Airlines accepted a 787-8 on 10 August, and the airframer will now be hoping the long-suffering programme has turned a corner.
It has been a traumatic three years for Boeing, with the 737 Max grounding in March 2019 predating the pandemic by a year, and successive delays to the service entry of its new flagship, the 777X. However, there has been better news. Boeing had a good Farnborough, boosting its net order tally in July from 186 to 312 for the year so far, and delivering 242 aircraft in the first seven months, most of them 737s. It has handed over 476 Max airliners since the type began flying again in late 2020.
However, it has been its rival Airbus that has been making the running, exploding from the blocks after the Covid-19 hiatus, with longer-range versions of its A321 – offering transatlantic range with 200 passengers – proving particularly popular. The European airframer has just seen its operational single-aisle fleet reach 10,000, helped by the addition of the A220 (designed by Bombardier as the CSeries). It is exactly 10 years since Airbus’s global narrowbody fleet passed the 5,000 milestone.
There has been much debate about the unintended consequences of lockdowns intended to stop the spread of Covid-19, from business collapses to disrupted children’s education and missed medical diagnoses. Was aviation safety another victim? When airlines furloughed or laid off tens of thousands of pilots in the second quarter of 2020, with training schedules cancelled or rearranged, some experts did warn that there could be consequences.
UK investigators this week concluded that pandemic-related interruptions to a first officer’s training contributed to a Boeing 737-800 tail-strike incident on a take-off from Manchester earlier this year. The TUI Airways pilot – who was undergoing line instruction at the time – rotated too rapidly causing the tail to contact the ground. Those looking into the incident suggested that “disjointed” training was “likely to have made it harder to learn and retain the correct take-off technique”.
Another consequence of the pandemic – though the recovery period rather than the shutdown itself – has been the operational challenges at many airports in recent months, particularly in Europe. Leisure carrier TUI blames this – rather than lack of passenger demand – for losses in the third quarter. It says that were it not for the disruption at airports – something it reckons cost it €75 million – it would have been around €48 million in the black for the period.
Many of El Al’s problems pre-date the Covid-19 shutdowns, including ongoing labour disputes and open skies competition from foreign operators flying into Israel. However, finally the flag-carrier believes things could be looking up. The lifting of an overflight ban on Israeli airlines by Saudi Arabia means El-Al’s Asia-Pacific flights have become quicker and cheaper to operate. The Abraham Accords of 2020 also now allow El-Al to operate to Dubai and other desirable Gulf destinations.
Across the global industry, things are improving fast both in terms of passenger demand, airline finances, and airliner orders. However, the near future remains uncertain. Could inflation knock passenger confidence? What will the effect be of rising oil prices and shortages in raw materials needed for the manufacture of aircraft? Finally, will the pilot shortage and operational challenges at airports continue to enrage travelers and slow recovery beyond this summer?
The pandemic and the direct damage it inflicted is receding into the rear horizon, but there could still be plenty turbulence ahead for the industry.
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