Airline bosses meeting this week at the IATA annual general meeting in Doha, Qatar seem unsure whether to be up or downbeat about the prospects for continuing recovery. On the one hand, the Covid-19 border closures and social distancing measures that grounded the industry in 2020 and much of 2021 appear to be over (China and a handful of outliers aside). Traffic is growing at a pace few expected even six months ago, including on non-domestic routes.
Take Australia and New Zealand. Both, until recently, had the drawbridge firmly raised. Now Qantas is forecasting a full international recovery by mid-2023. Meanwhile, Air New Zealand is returning its largest type – the Boeing 777-300ER – to service and restoring many transpacific and trans-Tasman services. As airline confidence grows, orders are back in fashion too, it seems. This week UK budget operator easyJet committed to 56 Airbus A320-family jets for delivery from 2026.
However, that is one perspective. Speakers of a gloomier persuasion at the IATA summit drew attention to a host of risks that threaten to derail the global economy, and the aviation sector. These include sanctions on Russia that are leading to shortages and stoking inflation, the impact on trade of China’s zero-Covid policy, and even the trend of “flight-shaming”, where environmentalist activists aim to make us feel guilty for flying.
Amid these seemingly contradictory narratives comes another headache for the industry, which, in North America and Europe in particular, is bracing for a summer of disruption due to staff shortages and other operational pressures. This week, United Airlines said it was cancelling 50 daily flights from one of its key hubs, Newark, in a bid to alleviate airport congestion. The carrier is bracing for a “national surge in demand” after two pandemic-hit holiday seasons.
In Europe, the problem is even worse with newspaper front pages focusing on chaotic scenes at many airports in recent weeks. Tourist-reliant London Gatwick is requiring its airline customers to ramp back capacity to avoid delays this summer. Gatwick’s biggest operator, easyJet, is consolidating flights to cut numbers of departures, blaming a lack of baggage handlers and other ground crew that are leading to longer aircraft turnaround times and knock-on delays.
In the USA, one solution to crew shortages has been for airlines to apply for special short-term work visas to bring pilots in from countries, such as Australia, where recovery still lags. However, this has aroused the ire of pilots’ union ALPA, which has accused carriers of “misuse” of the programmes, claiming there are three American pilots ready to fill every two airline pilot vacancies. It says the pilot shortage is “fictional”.
Amid all this, the green agenda continues to dominate aviation, with a swathe of projects making more likely the possibility that the next 10 years will see several genuinely disruptive technologies come to the fore. More than a dozen electrically powered vertical take-off and landing platforms are poised to go into flight-testing by 2024 and manufacturers are throwing serious money at discovering a way of making hydrogen propulsion viable.
One available-now carbon-reducing technology is sustainable aviation fuel, and this week witnessed the first flight of a 100% SAF-propelled commercial aircraft. The Braathens Regional Airlines ATR 72-600 made an 80min proving flight without passengers from Malmo to Stockholm, with both engine tanks filled with SAF. It was under a special exemption from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, which, like most regulators, normally permits flights using a maximum 50% SAF blend.
SAF faces hurdles, not least that it is pricey and scarce. Some also point out that, though it does not burn carbon, the refining process uses energy and that growing plants for biofuel takes up valuable agricultural land. However, as with electric cars, initiatives to drive demand – whether the public voting with their pockets or government nudges – will send investment signals on the supply side. In terms of a ready solution to aviation’s carbon damage, SAF is imperfect but currently our best bet.
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