During the depths of the pandemic in 2020, Qatar Airways was one of the few airlines that continued to advertise and operate many of its flights. Cynics might argue that the almost bottomless pockets of the tiny but resource-rich Gulf state gave the carrier an advantage not open to most of its global competitors. However, Qatar’s bounce-back from the crisis has been impressive. Its revenues for the year to 31 March 2022 were higher than 2019-20, and it has returned to strong profitability.
The one cloud on the horizon for the Doha-based airline – led since its inception by the often-controversial Akbar Al Baker – is its bitter dispute with Airbus over a complaint that its new A350s were subject to skin-paint deterioration. It has taken the manufacturer to court after the country’s regulator grounded the type. Airbus has in turn issued a counter claim for damages for breach of contract. A final judgement is due by the end of 2023.
Recent days have seen moves by start-up airlines that emerged during the pandemic, among them India’s Akasa and Norway’s Norse Atlantic. Akasa this week took delivery of its first aircraft – a Boeing 737 Max 8 – ahead of its planned commercial launch this year. It has committed to a further 71 of the type. Meanwhile, Norse laid out plans for a London Gatwick to New York service in August after this month opening connections from Oslo to Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Los Angeles.
This week also saw the first flight of the Airbus A321XLR, the longest-range narrowbody yet and a type that could change the way we fly on many long-haul routes. By incorporating a large aft centre fuel tank, the aircraft – an evolution of the A321LR – offers 4,700nm range, a distance that comfortably includes transatlantic city pairs and other intercontinental “mid-haul” routes. Toulouse aims to have the aircraft in service in early 2024.
At the Aircraft Interiors trade show in Hamburg this week, seat manufacturers responded to what they see as a niche in the market large enough to justify serious investment. Flights of seven hours in a single-aisle aircraft mean there will be a demand for a business class product. However, the different fuselage width and the fact there will be less need for top-end, full-flat seats, has created a new classification of specific designs, some of which exhibitors revealed at the event.
Meanwhile, while the long-haul, narrowbody sector looks like emerging in a serious way, do not write off an aircraft at the other end of the size scale. Many thought the pandemic would be the death knell of the Airbus A380, after Airbus announced in 2019 it planned to stop production of the world’s largest aircraft. However, the recovery from the crisis has seen a number of carriers reinstating the double-deck aircraft.
There will be no more deliveries, of course – Emirates took its final A380 this year, and type remains at the core of its fleet. However, this week South Korean airline Asiana also said it would resume operating the 550-seater to ease a shortage of seats amid an “explosive” increase in travel demand after border re-openings. Its compatriot Korean Air will restore A380s to its New York service in July, while Singapore Airlines, ANA and Qantas have all returned their superjumbos to service.
Finally, there could be an entirely new sort of passenger aircraft in the skies in the second half of the decade after Spanish airline Air Nostrum this week became the launch customer for the Hybrid Air Vehicles Airlander 10 airship. The Airlander – which uses a combination of buoyant lift from helium with an aerodynamic “wing” and vectored thrust – has been in development since being commissioned for a US military contract early in the century that was later cancelled.
Air Nostrum has reserved 10 Airlanders – which will come with a 100-seat gondola fixed below the hull – for delivery from 2026. The carrier will use the airship to offer what it says will be sustainable services on Spanish domestic routes. It is the latest example of how the pressing need to reduce aviation’s carbon footprint is likely to become one of the biggest drivers in aircraft development and deployment over this decade and next.
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