Kabul was never top of most people’s must-visit lists, but the Taliban takeover is likely to almost entirely shut Afghanistan off from the world in terms of air links, with the handful of mainly Gulf, Indian, and central Asian airlines that flew into Hamid Karzai International suspending services until further notice.
The recently modernized airport is busy with evacuation flights using military and chartered jets, with the US Air Force – for now – running air traffic control. The chaotic and tragic scenes we saw earlier in the week, as hundreds of desperate Afghans attempted to board aircraft, appear to be over, but when and if the country will return to the civil aviation world is uncertain. This week the US Federal Aviation Administration joined several other regulators in warning all commercial pilots to avoid Afghan airspace.
While the consequences of the rapid US withdrawal from Afghanistan dominated the headlines this week, the pandemic continues to dictate the fortunes of the industry – and just like localized outbreaks of Covid-19, different parts of the world are affected at different times.
The previously rapid rebound in the US market remains in reverse as worries about the Delta variant dissuade travelers from booking. Meanwhile, in India, a country devastated by a lethal surge in the virus earlier this year, airlines have seen a significant uptick in domestic traffic, with data from the regulator showing a 61% month-on-month rise in passenger numbers. However, carriers are counting the cost of travel restrictions in the second quarter, with several reporting deepening losses.
In China, Covid-19 has been making a comeback, but traffic there grew in July, with the big three – Air China, China Eastern, and China Southern – reporting an increase in passengers over the previous month, and compared with the same period a year ago. It comes as banking group HSBC widened its loss estimates for the trio in 2021, but forecast a full domestic travel recovery by 2023.
Qantas and Canada’s Porter this week joined a growing band of airlines requiring employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or present a negative test result. The trend is controversial, with several prominent US operators stating they will not introduce such a measure. The Australian flag-carrier says only 4% of its workforce is unwilling or unable to be jabbed, and that a poll showed the move to be overwhelmingly popular among staff.
Airlines all over the world are wrestling with a baffling plethora of national rules on pre- and post-flight testing, vaccine certificates, and quarantine rules that have stymied the return of most international services. In the USA, the major weapon in keeping internal aviation as Covid-free as possible has been the mask mandate, which has now been extended from 13 September until January 2022.
The directive continues to be contentious, with the FAA reporting increasing incidents of unruly passengers, mostly sparked because of a request to wear a face covering. The regulator said this week that it has so far imposed fines totaling more than $1 million on disruptive travelers.
Downturn or not, the dream of many entrepreneurs to own an airline appears undiminished, with a spate of entrants during the past 18 months. They appear to have no shortage of financial backers either. One of the most prominent new names, Breeze Airways, has secured another $200 million in funding just three months after launching services. Founder and chief executive David Neeleman describes his airline as “the best-funded start-up in US aviation history”.
The crisis has also shown how hard it is for an ailing airline to die. Scandinavian low-cost carrier Norwegian continues in hibernation, despite being effectively grounded since March 2020. This week ITA, the Italian successor to Alitalia, was granted an operating certificate, and plans to start operations in October, at first with a fleet of 52 aircraft. It plans to acquire the Alitalia name. And, South African Airlines is getting closer to its relaunch after its licence was renewed by the civil aviation regulator.
Two icons of aviation, however, are slowly passing into history. This week Korean Air said it planned to retire its two jumbo fleets – its Airbus A380s in five years, and its Boeing 747-8Is in 10. The carrier has 10 each of the quadjets, and most have been in storage since the start of the pandemic. As widebodies return to service after the pandemic, Emirates is likely to be the only operator with a substantial fleet of the world’s largest airliner. Its final A380 – the last one ever built – will be handed over next year.
welcome aboard the new airside
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