This week saw the first of the year’s big air shows in Singapore. However, the event was sparsely attended, even compared with its predecessor, which took place in February 2020 against the backdrop of a novel coronavirus spreading from China. Although the outward-looking city state has been cautiously reopening its borders, tight virus controls – including strict testing and the prospect of having to quarantine – were enough to keep many aerospace executives at home.
That said, the show did attract many of the industry’s big players and, while major airliner orders were scarce, those there were reflected many of the trends that we have seen in the market over the past two years. The booming demand for cargo aircraft, for instance. In addition to Singapore Airlines firming up an earlier order for seven Airbus A350 freighters, the European manufacturer added a new customer for the variant, with a provisional commitment from Etihad.
There were also a number of announcements in the passenger-to-freighter (P2F) sector, with Boeing building a conversion line at partner ST Engineering’s Guangzhou facility in China, and German outfit EFW signing up more customers for its A321 P2F programme. While the lack of belly capacity on grounded passenger aircraft stimulated demand for air freight during the pandemic, a growing e-commerce market will continue to boost the appetite for these giant sky trucks.
Another emerging sector that increasing numbers of airlines are getting excited about is urban air mobility. AirAsia’s parent group said at the show that it will lease at least 100 VX4 electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft from Vertical Aerospace. Embraer’s Eve spin-off also disclosed deals with Australian operators for its eVTOL. With more than half a dozen developers claiming to be close to certificating designs, could this be aviation’s next big opportunity?
Proponents believe eVTOLs can usher in an era of affordable, sustainable, and rapid three-dimensional mobility in congested cities. Others believe they could go the way of the much-hyped very-light jet revolution of the noughties. Aside from the business challenges, there are huge regulatory and safety hurdles to overcome. US investigators are looking into the cause of a recent crash in California of a remotely-piloted experimental aircraft flown by air taxi pioneer Joby Aviation.
It seems a long time ago that Qantas was talking up its “Project Sunrise” initiative to directly connect London and New York with Sydney and Melbourne. Since then, most of the Australian flag-carrier’s international flights have been grounded, and talks with Airbus were put on hold without an order placed. However, both sides are talking again and the prospect of passengers being able to fly for 18 hours, half-way around the word, without a stop is back on the agenda.
In other signs of life returning to normal for long-haul aviation, Air France-KLM, one of Europe’s big three airline groups, announced that demand for intercontinental travel continued to improve in the last months of 2021, despite the onset of the Omicron variant and travel restrictions being re-imposed. Capacity in December was back to three-quarters of pre-crisis levels, with the group reporting particularly strong bookings for transatlantic services after the USA’s reopening.
Of course, that is not the case everywhere. Embattled Cathay Pacific reported its lowest ever monthly passenger numbers for January as the Hong Kong government continues to keep its border shut in its pursuit of eliminating Covid from the territory. As with mainland China, the approach seems out of kilter with most of the wider region, where countries are looking to manage the disease while connecting to the rest of the world again (New Zealand being a rare exception).
Finally, as we have written many times in recent months, US airlines are very much back in recruitment mode as they find themselves short of flight crew, particularly new-entrant first officers. Evidence of this comes this week with an order by United Airlines for 25 Cirrus SR20 piston singles – one of the most popular general aviation types for pilot training. The Chicago-based carrier wants to take on and train up to 5,000 new pilots by the end of the decade.
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