Despite stubbornly high infection rates and one in three of us still unvaccinated, governments everywhere – with the exception of China and, to an extent, Japan – are accepting that closing borders and restricting travel are no longer effective defensive strategies against the virus. Aviation has been the beneficiary, with many now anticipating a return to 2019 travel numbers by 2023.
The USA, of course, has been leading the way – the recovery of its vast domestic aviation market starting a few months after the first coronavirus wave in mid-2020. Although the Biden administration this week extended the controversial face-mask mandate for passengers for at least another 15 days – in response to a rapidly spreading Omicron sub-variant – air travel within the USA is essentially back to where it was pre-pandemic.
One of the country’s big three carriers, Delta Air Lines, said this week it expects demand for long-haul services to also start rebounding over the next months as rules are relaxed in Europe and Asia. “Everything we see right now points to very, very robust travel through spring and summer,” said Delta president Glen Hauenstein. Even more lucrative corporate travel – which has long lagged the revival in leisure – is already back to 70% of 2019 levels at the Atlanta-based airline.
In Europe, resurgent demand ahead of the Easter holidays, coupled with recruitment shortfalls and large numbers of staff off sick, has caught airports and airlines on the hop, EasyJet among them. However, while cancelled flights have produced negative headlines for the UK low-cost carrier, it has been quickly restoring capacity. EasyJet says the number of seats it will offer during its peak July to September period this year will be “near” its 2019 level.
One country where aviation leaders have less reason to be optimistic is Russia. Most of the country’s airline fleet comprises Airbus and Boeing jets, and, prior to the Ukraine invasion, around half were registered abroad, including in Ireland and Bermuda, with these countries responsible for safety oversight. Out of these 781 foreign-registered aircraft, 570 have been moved to the Russian registry, the Russian deputy prime minister said this week.
While Moscow is understandably desperate to maintain air services across its vast territory, re-registration without owners’ consent is a breach of ICAO standards. The Putin regime may no longer worry about such legal or diplomatic niceties, but it goes beyond that. European regulators fear their Russian counterparts will be unable to oversee safety standards for that number of aircraft, especially when Airbus, Boeing and their large suppliers have all withdrawn technical support.
Finally, we have been talking for a year or more about the return of the pilot shortage, with US regional carriers struggling to operate some routes because of a lack of first officers taking their first step on their airline career, as well as experienced captains. However, commercial aviation is not the only part of the industry finding it difficult to recruit and keep aviators. This week the US Air Force began offering cash bonuses to those committing to a cockpit career with the service.
The USAF says the payments are one of a “variety of tools” it is using to improve recruitment and retention, and vary from $15,000 to $35,000 in return for signing contracts from five to 12 years. Some officers are eligible for lump sums of as much as $200,000. Rather worryingly for those concerned about the security of the nation, the USAF has regularly been missing by more than 10% its target for the number of pilots it says it needs to carry out the national defence strategy.
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