In the depths of the worst crisis for aviation, Boeing’s Max nightmare, which began with the re-engined narrowbody’s grounding in April 2019 after a second fatal crash, has – with all respect to the families who suffered – been overshadowed. But the disappearance from the skies of Seattle’s top-selling type was the big aviation story of last year, and has continued to plague a manufacturer for which the ability to continue shipping limited numbers of single-aisle aircraft during the past eight months would have provided some respite against the downturn.
There have been several false starts over the past 12 months, but, with US and European regulators now looking likely to approve the resumption of 737 Max services before the end of the year, beleaguered Boeing executives – as well as the airlines and crews operating the aircraft – have been offered some good news to take into 2021.
However, the world that the Max will return to looks very different to a year or so ago, when Boeing had initially hoped to obtain clearance from the authorities. The airline market has been devastated by Covid-19 and – although single-aisle, domestic routes have been less affected than their intercontinental, widebody counterparts – demand for the Max has diminished.
According to data specialist Cirium, airlines have shed some 1,300 Max orders since the onset of the crisis. While some 385 aircraft have been delivered, not all of these will return to service immediately. The other problem facing Boeing is that it has continued to produce the Max since its grounding, and some 450 examples are stored and waiting delivery. The OEM faces the triple whammy of trying to clear the equivalent of a Wal-Mart car park, while continuing production, and trying to find new business from a depressed market.
There is another challenge too for Boeing. Covid aside, will paying passengers be prepared to fly on a brand that – thanks to relentless media exposure during 2019 – has been tarnished. Will that famous slogan “If it’s not a Boeing, I’m not going” be replaced with “If it’s a Max, it’s no thanks”? Boeing may have become a victim of the industry’s success in recent decades in turning major hull losses into such a rare incident that when such a tragedy occurs it becomes international news for months. It has led to suggestions that Boeing may quietly drop the Max name when the aircraft returns to service.
Elsewhere this week there has been speculation about when an airline recovery might happen and what shape it will take. After a burst of optimism during the northern hemisphere summer, a second wave of Covid infections – or maybe a first wave that never really went away – has led to the return of lockdowns and tighter travel restrictions in many countries. It looks like being a long, miserable winter for the industry.
For those minded to take a glass-half-full view of life, there is the odd bit of good news. Domestic air travel has made a vigorous return in China and other Southeast Asian markets that have been successful in suppressing the virus. Travel bubbles have, cautiously, begun to emerge allowing limited international services to resume. Airlines and industry bodies have been campaigning to convince the public that airline cabins are Covid-safe (although that only works if the public are permitted to travel). And advances in rapid testing techniques have opened the possibility of virus-free passengers being cleared to fly at airports. The odd packed flight in Europe this summer proves that the lure of a cheap holiday in the sun is enough to persuade many families back into the air.
On the down side, travel bans and quarantine rules make a resumption of long-haul travel, in any sort of volumes, a distant prospect. Business people – other than those who absolutely must make a journey – are also continuing to do their social interactions by Zoom, either through choice or because their employers do not want them to travel. Until there is a vaccine or the unlikely prospect of society deciding that the risk of contracting Covid is a price worth paying for the resumption of life as we knew it, it is difficult to be optimistic.
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