The UK on 8 December became the first country to launch a Covid-19 vaccination programme. In the next few days a number of other nations gave the go-ahead to their own roll-outs of the Pfizer jab. More are set to follow. It marks the beginning of the end of the worst global public health crisis in a 100 years – and the most calamitous for commercial aviation.
However, such has been the damage, it will take many months, if not years, for the industry to get back to normal. Amid the continuing chaos for airlines and airports in the past week came the news of the cancellation of June’s Paris air show – every two years the biggest gathering for the aerospace sector. Despite the optimism surrounding the vaccine, organisers did not have the confidence that international travel will be sufficiently back to normal in six months to risk putting plans in place for an event that attracts tens of thousands of trade visitors.
Another battle for airlines, airports and the authorities, as travel restrictions are slowly lifted, will be persuading people back into the skies. Despite assurances from IATA and others, millions remain unconvinced that sitting in a tube for several hours – let alone mingling in a crowded airport – carries less risk of contracting Covid than many other everyday activities.
Some carriers are coming up with their own solutions. Japan Airlines, for instance, is to offer Covid-19 insurance for international passengers, including medical costs if a traveler tests positive during their trip. Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, and Virgin Atlantic are among the other airlines already offering similar packages.
Cebu Pacific of the Philippines is taking a different approach, by conducting a trial where passengers flying between Manila and the city of General Santos will undergo a free antigen test before boarding – only those testing negative will be allowed to fly.
Passengers, of course, are not the only ones at risk of catching the disease. Crew are also in the front line. The US Federal Aviation Administration is being urged to fast-track approval of the Covid-19 vaccine for pilots and cabin crew. The Air Line Pilots Association says it wants them to be given priority vaccine access, without it affecting their FAA medical certifications. Traditionally, the FAA has waited at least one year after Food and Drugs Administration public approval before allowing pilots to take new vaccines or medications.
The type of aviation industry that will emerge in the post-Covid era has been very much in the news this past week, with many believing that the pandemic gives aviation – and society as a whole – the opportunity for a re-set, especially when it comes to the impact of carbon-heavy industries on the environment.
The European Union has published a strategy that aims to deliver a 90% reduction in emissions from the region’s transport sector by 2050, including by delivering a zero-emission aircraft by 2035. Given the limits of current technology, that seems a big ask, but so too, back in March, did the possibility of developing an effective Covid-19 vaccine by the end of the year. And there were plenty of sceptics in the early 1960s about the chances of putting a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. Science and engineering have been performing rapid wonders for centuries, and may again.
At the light end of the market there is no shortage of innovation when it comes to creating carbon-efficient or even zero-carbon aircraft. In France in the past week, Daher, Airbus and Safran announced that they will begin next year assembling their hybrid-electric EcoPulse demonstrator.
Meanwhile, another developer, Los Angeles-based Ampaire, demonstrated its battery-powered Cessna 337 Skymaster on a demonstration flight between two Hawaiian islands, about 24 km or 45 km apart.
Urban air vehicle developers have also been making progress. Bavarian start-up Lilium is looking to develop a programme to train pilots to fly its electric air taxi it plans to have in operation by 2025. The company says it needs a tailored training regime because of the unique characteristics of its design.
Another German company, Volocopter, is talking to Singapore about launching air taxi services in the city state by 2023. It comes a year after it performed a manned demonstration of its concept aircraft over downtown Singapore. Ride-share giant Uber had also dabbled with developing an electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft for urban transport. In the past week, it agreed to sell its Uber Elevate division to Joby Aviation, while also agreeing to invest $75 million into the young Californian company.
Back in the world of conventional airliners, remember the NMA, or new mid-market aircraft, that Boeing was set to launch before the twin crises of the 737 Max grounding and the pandemic put development plans on hold?
A novel mid-range aircraft from Seattle seems inevitable if Boeing is to remain competitive with Airbus products such as the A321neo. However, analysts now believe that a new Boeing airliner will be smaller than the original NMA concept – a similar size to the 757, a single-aisle jet that could carry just over 200 passengers on thinner long-haul routes, such as Europe to secondary cities in north America.
It comes as demand for models such as the 787 – and widebodies generally – erodes, with many believing the heyday of the 300- to 450-seat aircraft flying between hubs is over, at least on many medium-range routes, with more efficient single-aisle aircraft taking their place. Whether there is sufficient gap in the market for such a product to justify investment from a cash-strapped Boeing remains to be seen.
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