Encouragingly, in parts of the world, the precipitous rise in Omicron cases in recent weeks looks like it might be followed by a decline just as sharp as the milder variant sweeps through populations and runs out of individuals to infect. However, it has dealt aviation a twin punch, with bookings falling as governments tighten travel restrictions, and airlines are forced to cancel flights because so many of their employees are calling in ill or isolating.
This week global airline association IATA noted that positive trends throughout the world seen in November had come under threat over the festive period, and this was continuing into January. IATA director general Willie Walsh believes politicians overreacted to the emergence of Omicron in the last weeks of 2021 with fresh border closures and more stringent testing requirements, putting many off booking flights in the first quarter.
While Europe is beginning to step back from some of its measures, in Asia-Pacific a warier approach by governments is compounding the problems for carriers. China is entering its third year of closed borders with the authorities there indicating that they are likely to remain that way until 2023. While airlines in mainland China can at least fall back on domestic networks, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific remains virtually grounded aside from cargo flights – and hemorrhaging cash.
Even in Australia, which had been making moves to reopen international services as part of a living with Covid strategy, Omicron has set things into reverse. With cases rising again, Qantas and its low-cost division Jetstar this week both slashed domestic capacity through March. However, chief executive Alan Joyce remains confident that things should start to improve towards the Easter holidays in April, when many Australians visit family and friends.
In Africa, the situation appears better, with Ethiopian Airlines confident that it can reach pre-pandemic capacity this year. The continent’s leading carrier has been helped by a strong cargo performance, helped not just by consignments of produce from the region’s growers, but the spread of the e-commerce revolution. Chief executive Tewolde GebreMariam boasted this week that his company had “not taken bailout money” and had paid its employees “salary increases and bonuses”.
American travelers have proved resilient throughout the crisis, with fewer blocks on domestic flying than elsewhere in the world. However, Delta boss Ed Bastian has described the last month or so as “hellacious” for the carrier, with hundreds of flights cancelled and crew members and support staff sidelined by the virus, despite no marked decline in demand. It is likely to mean a first quarter loss for the Atlanta-based airline. Expect similar announcements from Delta’s competitors.
The sick-list problem, of course, is not limited to the USA. Finnair is delaying launching a new route to Dallas and bringing back its connection to Nagoya in Japan because of staff absences, which it says are “significantly impacting” operations. The flag-carrier claims that by cutting scheduled flights by a fifth for the next month, it can “avoid last-minute changes and better manage our customers’ expectations”.
Away from Covid-19, one of the big developments in the USA this month has been the start of 5G cellular transmissions. However, the move is causing havoc for aviation. The Federal Aviation Administration has banned some instrument-based landings at US airports from 19 January, when the network goes live. The authority still has to be convinced that 5G transmissions will not interfere with aircraft radio altimeters.
On the subject of safety, 2021 proved another safe year to fly, with airline accident fatalities more than halved from the previous (Covid-impacted) year. In fact, the only accident involving a large passenger jet in which people died was that of a Sriwijaya Air Boeing 737-500, which crashed in the Java Sea off Indonesia in January 2021, killing all 61 of those on board. That disaster has prompted Jakarta to place a greater emphasis on upset prevention and recovery training for air crews.
Finally, the willingness of entrepreneurs to launch airlines during the pandemic continues, with the latest, Birmingham, UK-based Hans Airways, looking to summer to launch services after taking on its first Airbus A330. By offering connections to underserved, secondary cities in India, the carrier is targeting the UK’s large diaspora and its willingness to travel for family, leisure and business reasons. It is a similar strategy to that of fellow start-up Flypop, which also plans to begin flights this year.
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