“Australia is back on the map for international travelers,” Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce declared this week, as his airline announced a series of new services to cities in India and South Korea. The decision by Australia and neighbour New Zealand in 2020 to create an Antipodean no-fly zone in an attempt to keep out Covid-19 – and maintain it through 2021 – typified the crisis long-haul aviation found itself in. Once popular tourist routes were closed with little prospect, it seemed, of them re-opening any time soon.
Canberra’s and Wellington’s decisions to switch from a so-called zero-Covid approach to one of managing the virus has led to an unleashing of pent-up demand. Qantas says it expects international capacity in April to smash earlier forecasts. It had been expecting to be operating internationally at 22% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of March, rising to 44% by the end of the second quarter. But capacity for April is already likely to be around 40%. There is still a long way to go, but for the flag-carrier’s long-suffering pilots and other employees the rebound will be extremely welcome.
The trend is not universal, of course. Willie Walsh, chief executive of airline association IATA, this week described Hong Kong as being “effectively off the map” as a result of its decision to continue to impose heavy travel restrictions. It leaves the territory and mainland China among the few places that are still closed to international visitors. Although air travel is permitted, tough quarantine rules and the fact that Hong Kong will ban an airline if it is found carrying passengers who test positive for coronavirus on arrival are deterrents to both carriers and individual travelers.
Elsewhere, normal service in aviation is being resumed, and that includes merger activity, something little seen during the crisis. Just weeks after a merger bid by ultra-low-cost rival Frontier, US airline Spirit this week said it was in discussions with JetBlue about the latter’s $3.6 billion takeover offer. A jilted Frontier has warned that a JetBlue-Spirit union would mean higher fares for consumers and reduced competition. While known as a low-cost airline, JetBlue’s model is very different to that of Spirit and Frontier, as it offers a more quality cabin product as well as transatlantic services.
The wave of new airlines continues, with Toronto-based Jetlines targeting summer for the launch of domestic services and to leisure destinations in the USA, Mexico and Caribbean. Meanwhile, the bosses of two European start-ups, Ireland’s Emerald Airlines and Flypop of the UK, say the large pool of laid-off pilots, managers and other staff has been a boon for their businesses. It’s the “single biggest benefit of Covid” remarks Emerald’s Conor McCarthy, while his Flypop counterpart, Nino Singh Judge, says the crisis has made it possible “to hire seriously experienced people”.
Emirates chief executive Sir Tim Clark is still bitter about Airbus’s decision not to build a re-engined version of the A380, of which the Dubai-based carrier is by far the biggest fan, with a fleet of 120. Clark said this week that he had “tried so hard” to convince the airframer to launch a so-called A380neo that could have delivered up to 15% lower operating costs. He worries about what will happen by the mid-2030s when airports such as London Heathrow, Sao Paulo and Sydney become increasingly slot-constrained, but the 500-seat superjumbos are reaching the end of their life.
The advantages of an ultra-large-capacity airliner in an era when the growth of cities was outstripping the ability of their hub airports to increase in size was an argument that was made constantly by executives in Toulouse before the decision to cancel the A380 programme in early 2019. Unfortunately for Airbus, no airline, other than Emirates, saw the double-deck quadjet as being anything beyond a niche product, as its four engines made it less economical than an A350 or Boeing 777 on most routes.
Finally, we wrote last week about the appointment of Marjan Rintel to the top job at KLM. Now, there is more good news for those keen that the gender imbalance in airline C-suites is redressed, with El Al naming Dina Ben Tal Ganancia as its first female chief executive. Ganancia, who has held other senior management positions with the Israeli airline, will take up her position on 1 June. She will have little time to settle in as she attempts to turn around the finances of a carrier hit hard by the pandemic and the lifting of constraints on overseas carriers at Tel Aviv.
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