The new year dawned – as 2021 did – with rising Covid-19 cases prompting tougher travel restrictions, but with many in the industry expressing hope that the worst would soon be over. As with last year too, the three main regions for aviation are experiencing contrasting fortunes, with North America’s robust recovery continuing, Europe faltering but optimistic about a strong summer, and Asia languishing, much as it was 12 months ago.
Although rising Omicron cases led to crew shortages and cancelled flights over Christmas, US airlines remain bullish. This week, low-cost Allegiant Air ordered 50 Boeing 737 Max jets, with options for 50 more. Deliveries start next year. The move by the all-Airbus A320 family operator is a coup for Boeing, which has been in crisis since the Max grounding in 2019. However, Seattle’s sales bosses clearly made an offer Las Vegas-based Allegiant found hard to refuse.
In Europe, the UK government conceded that tighter, and costly, rules around travel, imposed in late November, had done nothing to hold back a tide of Omicron, and in early January, despite soaring infection rates, most were lifted. Airlines and travel firms could not believe their luck as January is traditionally one of the busiest months for reservations. With Christmas over and the winter chill setting in, Brits tend to cheer themselves up by booking summer holidays, and are doing so again.
UK-based no-frills airline EasyJet is one of those expecting a return to full pre-pandemic capacity this summer. Chief executive Johan Lundgren says that despite “bumps along the road” due to the latest coronavirus variant, the industry is “poised for a bounceback”. He believes that high vaccination rates, on-board sanitary measures, and flexible booking policies are all giving customers confidence to fly again, and will convince the authorities to keep borders fully open.
However, in parts of the world where governments are still far from convinced about the rationale for so-called living with Covid, the picture for aviation is bleak. Amid stricter quarantine rules for crew, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific this week announced further cuts to services through March, and revealed it would only be operating at 2% of its pre-pandemic passenger capacity in January. Cargo operations – the one saving grace for Cathay Pacific throughout the downturn – will be at just 20%.
Aside from cargo, one part of the industry that appears pandemic-proof is business aviation. Just as goods have continued to travel around the world despite lockdowns, so too have the elite managed to remain in the skies, by using private aircraft rather than restricted commercial flights. And, of course, business aviation covers more than the airborne limos of the rich and famous; essential workers often use private aircraft to reach remote mines, oil rigs and scientific research sites.
The sector’s strength is reflected in the 2021 performance of Dassault. Although sales of its Rafale combat aircraft have been strong, demand for its Falcon range of business jets has also been high. The French manufacturer notched up 51 Falcon orders in 2021, up from 15 the previous year, helped by the launch of its 10X flagship in May. Its backlog for the business jet family stood at 55 units on 31 December, compared with 34 a year earlier.
Just as Asian airlines have struggled, so too have its nascent aircraft manufacturers. China’s Comac missed a year-end certification target for its C919. It means launch customer China Eastern Airlines will have to wait a bit longer to bring the type – a competitor for the 737 and A320 – into service. Although Comac is not admitting it, it is likely stronger US export rules have contributed to the delay – the narrowbody relies highly on Western technology, including its CFM Leap engines.
Meanwhile, Indonesian Aerospace has appealed to investors to support its N219 programme, a 19-seat turboprop pitched at the airlines that connect the country’s numerous islands. The state-owned firm says that, while there is a strong requirement for the aircraft in Indonesia and beyond, it lacks the funds to bring the N219 to market. As a host of previous developers have learned, breaking into the closed shop of the aircraft manufacturing industry – even with a modest design – is never easy.
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