After two-and-a-half years of the world’s strictest approach to containing the pandemic – a policy that has sent one of the fastest growing aviation markets into reverse – is China finally going soft on Zero Covid? There are promising signs. Beijing this week scrapped a penalty system for airlines found to be carrying passengers who test positive. The move – which imposed suspensions on guilty carriers – has been unpopular and a disincentive to operators to rebuild networks.
However, those looking for a rapid bounce-back might be disappointed. China is still imposing local lockdowns in response to clusters of Covid-19, and banning most international flights. This week, IATA deputy director Conrad Clifford called on Beijing to fall into step with the rest of the world and reopen its borders, something that would not only reconnect the nation with the rest of the world, but benefit the whole region.
The reliance of many of Asia’s airlines on a strong Chinese market was something made clear this week by Japan’s two largest carriers, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, who are enjoying a three- to five-fold spike in bookings after Tokyo relaxed its travel restrictions in October. However, with the mainland and Hong Kong accounting for a quarter of ANA’s overall passenger numbers, Zero Covid is having an impact beyond China’s borders.
Elsewhere in the region, Thai Airways is the latest carrier to consider bringing its Airbus A380s back to service. Many saw the groundings that followed the pandemic – which came along a year after Toulouse announced it was axing production of the under-selling superjumbo – as the final nail in the coffin of the world’s largest airliner. A thirsty quadjet capable of carrying 500 passengers was not the ideal tool for the recovery.
However, the A380’s days are not over. With Emirates having restored most of its A380 fleet, the double-decker has made a bit of a comeback as airlines have struggled to restore capacity to match demand. Thai Airways – like most carriers – regards the A380 as a niche part of its fleet (it operated just six pre-pandemic). However, with business travel still patchy and airports struggling with staffing issues, maximizing the number of passengers on fewer flights almost begins to make sense.
Qatar Airways has been one of the airline success stories of the 21st century. The flag-carrier of a tiny state, the airline – like Singapore Airlines and Emirates – has grown to become a giant on the global stage, with a network that extends around the world. Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup will prove another boon for the airline as more than a million fans descend on the Gulf emirate for the year’s biggest sporting event.
Awarding the Word Cup to Qatar has not been universally popular, but the country’s aviation sector is keen to make the most of it. Qatar is expanding Doha’s Hamad International – winner of the SkyTrax best airport for the second year running – and even reopening the nearby old airport for the tournament, which starts on 20 November. Qatar Airways’ outspoken chief executive Akbar Al Baker said this week he was confident the airline and airport would have the capacity to cope.
Finally, the prospect of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) air taxis operating within a couple of years took a step forward this week with United Airlines and eVTOL developer Archer Aviation announcing plans for an airport-to-downtown shuttle service for New York City from 2025. Several airlines and independent operators have tried to make a go of helicopter connections between Manhattan and the city’s big airports over the years. All have struggled.
With eVTOLs, airlines such as United believe they can offer a cheaper and more sustainable alternative to rotorcraft – and ground-based transport – to get those in a hurry to their downtown offices, hotels and client meetings in time. United and Archer are promising the service will get passengers from Newark International to the southern tip of Manhattan in 10 minutes – a journey by car could take the best part of an hour.
Airport to city centre links are one of the most obvious business cases for eVTOL air taxis. However, 2025 is less than 60 weeks away and, so far, no authorities – including the USA’s FAA – have come up with an operating framework for urban air mobility platforms. Consider too, that few developers have even flown a full-scale prototype. The initial market is there but those talking about having services up and running in a few years are probably erring very much on the side of optimism.
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