It has been an important week for airline alliances, with Virgin Atlantic becoming the first new member in more than eight years to join SkyTeam, home to Delta Air Lines and Air France-KLM. Although the UK carrier has long had loose partnerships with both these airlines, it has been fiercely protective of its independence. It seems the past two years changed everything, with chief executive Shai Weiss saying the pandemic made clear the “strength of partnerships” in a fragile world.
Virgin’s old foe British Airways has also deepened its ties with Qatar Airways, a shareholder in BA’s parent company IAG and fellow member of oneworld. It means the two airlines will operate shared services to 42 countries through their London and Doha hubs. While the industry continues to see the emergence of determined start-ups, including in long haul, size does matter because of economies of scale and the value of being able to offer multiple, convenient connections.
It has also been a week of significance in disruptive propulsion and advanced air mobility. Eviation, one of the contenders hoping to bring an all-electric passenger aircraft to market, flew its nine-seat Alice for the first time on 27 September. The sortie took place in Washington State and lasted 8min, with the aircraft climbing to 2,800ft. It is a small but possibly momentous step towards the company’s ambition of certificating and delivering the type to customers in 2027.
Lilium, a German company developing an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, completed at a test centre in Spain a full transition from hover to wing-borne flight with its unmanned demonstrator for the first time. While still a long way from carrying paying passengers, the milestone involved deploying electric fans in both wings and tilting canards designed to enable forward flight.
In the UK, one of Lilium’s eVTOL competitors, Vertical Aerospace, carried out the first tethered flight of its VX4 prototype, this time with a crewmember onboard. Unlike many of its rivals, Vertical plans to carry out its flight test programme with a pilot in the cockpit and using a prototype similar in dimensions to its planned production aircraft. The New York-quoted business believes that this will better identify niggles and be a faster route to certification.
Meanwhile, the US Federal Aviation Administration is preparing for maybe the biggest change in aviation since the jet age by setting out standards for the “vertiports” these eVTOL platforms will use. The guidelines give dimensions for take-off and landing zones and describe how approach and departure paths will work. However, the FAA admits its guidance is “conservative” because it does not yet have enough validated performance data from this new breed of flying machines.
Just a year ago, making any international trip by air necessitated days of often baffling preparation, involving vaccination certificates, pre-departure and post-arrival tests, on-board health protocols and often quarantine requirements. Every country – and sometimes bits of countries – had unique rules. Now, few remain, with the last holdouts, including Australia and New Zealand, abandoning their restrictions in recent months.
Canada became the latest to drop all its mandates from 1 October, including the need for international travelers to register for an app. The debate about who took the right approach to pandemic prevention – weighing public health against the right of movement and economic impact – will go on for years. What matters for aviation is that, two-and-a-half years after the crisis began, the industry is finally Covid-19 free and the world (or most of it) open again for business.
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