The slow return to the skies of the Boeing 737 Max after the US Federal Aviation Administration became on 20 November the first regulator to end its almost two-year grounding will be helped by a likely uptick in short-haul flying in 2021. The International Air Transport Association – the voice of the airline industry – last week urged other authorities to follow the FAA’s example as soon as they felt it was safe.
Many leisure and low-cost carriers have orders for the re-engined narrowbody and they will be keen to introduce its impressive economics to service as soon as possible, especially if traffic begins to rebound as rapidly as some believe it will once a Covid-19 vaccine is in circulation.
However, the Max is not the only “new” single-aisle airliner on the scene. Two rival programmes – China’s C919 from Comac and Russia’s Irkut MC-21 – are both continuing to make progress, although ever-shifting geopolitics could influence their prospects in the global market.
Comac was granted authorisation by China’s civil aviation administration last week to step up the C919’s flight test and certification campaign. The airframer is confident of beginning deliveries of the CFM International Leap 1C-powered airliner to domestic customers next year, with China Eastern the launch customer.
Meanwhile, Irkut is set to fly the first version of its MC-21 with Russian-built engines by year-end. The aircraft has already flown with Pratt & Whitney PW1400G, but the Aviadvigatel PD-14 gives customers an indigenous alternative.
That could be crucial as Moscow has directed its aircraft manufacturers to favour Russian suppliers over Western competitors as much as possible, to boost a struggling domestic aerospace sector and reduce industrial dependence on the West, as well as preserving foreign currency reserves.
The outgoing Trump administration has also made noises about restricting US aerospace exports to China for political and security reasons – although the importance of the Chinese airline market means any such move would have severe implications for Boeing and its suppliers.
Another possible new type – although not likely to be at an airport near you for many years – is a long-mooted turboprop from Embraer. The Brazilian manufacturer – whose proposed commercial aircraft merger with Boeing collapsed at the start of the Covid crisis – is looking for potential partners to investigate the viability of a programme.
Embraer has released a visual image of what a future turboprop might look like, but no further details have emerged. The 51-year-old company began by marketing propeller aircraft, such as the Bandeirante and the Brasilia, but the emergence of the Embraer Regional Jet, or ERJ, series in the 1990s and the E-Jet family a decade later rendered these obsolete.
While airlines have had a torrid time as a result of Covid, airports have arguably had it even worse, deprived of both landing fees and the revenues that passengers generate for their retail outlets, while facing huge bills for sitting on vast pieces of real estate. The operator of the world’s newest hubs – Berlin Brandenburg – has warned that the airport faces collapse before it has even fully opened unless traffic bounces back significantly next year.
Brandenburg – which replaces two older airports as the new gateway to the German capital – was already in crisis because of an almost decade-long delay in opening because of technical problems to do with its construction. Its owners desperately need revenue to start paying back the debts accrued during that time.
Finally, with a Covid vaccine finally on the near horizon, attention is also being paid to ways the aviation industry might encourage passengers back, and assure governments that it is safe again to fly, including through rapid testing.
Philippines carrier Cebu Pacific is the latest to offer a trial where passengers travelling from Manila’s Ninoy Acquino airport to the southern city of General Santos will be given a free antigen test prior to boarding, with only those who test negative allowed to fly.
Such schemes – ideally rolled out nationally or even among groups of countries – are surely key to opening the skies again, particularly during the following six months as a Covid vaccine is rolled out. There remain questions over so-called false negatives, and what would actually happen to a passenger confirmed to be carrying the infection while waiting to board a flight, as well as his or her family or travelling companions.
However, with passenger numbers likely to remain perilously low over a long winter for northern hemisphere airlines, they could be the best short-term hope for filling aircraft again.
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