Whatever cliché you choose – the darkest hour before dawn; the light you can’t quite spot at the tunnel’s end; the sunny sky obscured by storm clouds – for a lot of pilots and other aviation professionals whose careers have been trampled by this crisis, it is difficult to foresee a time when Covid-19 is behind us. Despite the vaccine roll-out and falling infection rates across most of the world, there are few obvious glimpses of an industry rebound on its way.
In fact, quite the opposite. This week, one of Europe’s big three airline groups, Air France-KLM, warned that earnings from the first quarter of 2021 would be worse than the last three months of 2020, and that there was “limited visibility on the demand recovery curve”. Passengers, said the Franco-Dutch operator, were reluctant or unable to book flights because of ever-changing government travel rules.
The impact is being felt too on the aerospace side as cancellations and deferrals as well as a slowdown in deliveries are hitting a business that until early 2020 was worrying about how to ramp up to meet airline demand for its products. Airbus, in its annual results announcement this week, detailed plans to reduce its workforce by 7,500 people. For the manufacturers, even an increase in airline activity will take a long time to feed through to aircraft orders and deliveries.
De Havilland Canada is one of the newest players in the aircraft industry – albeit with a brand that revives a venerable name. Its owners bought the Dash 8-400 turboprop – previously the Q400 – from Bombardier in 2019. However, a collapse in orders has forced it to cease production once all current orders are fulfilled in the next few months, and vacate its factory in Toronto. The company does not rule out restarting output, from a new facility, once the sector recovers.
Amid the grim news, however, optimism. Speakers from CAE and global consultancy Oliver Wyman were adamant on an Airside webinar this week – co-hosted by FlightGlobal – that today’s dormant market for cockpit jobs would be replaced from 2022 by the return of a pilot shortage. The dynamics are simple, they say – a bounce back in demand for flights from this year and large numbers of older pilots choosing to leave the profession for good will create an imbalance of demand over supply.
But will the post-Covid aviation market be different? Many are convinced it will. There is little doubt that once border and stay-at-home restrictions are lifted there will be a surge in bookings as millions of consumers take long-delayed vacations or connect again with family and friends. But what about business travel, so crucial to many airlines’ fortunes? Will that army of frequent fliers, from globetrotting sales executives to commuting oil rig workers, take to the air again?
One airline chief who thinks much of that demographic will not return is Jonathan Hinkles of UK regional airline Loganair. Speaking on another webinar this week, he said some business travel will come back – you cannot, after all work from home if your job is a building site engineer. But many from the financial services, consultancy and legal sectors will continue with their Zoom engagements, as they have rather successfully for much of the past year. Does he have a point?
And what will flying be like for passengers and crew once skies are open? After a year when most of us have been wearing masks, avoiding close social contact, and scrubbing our hands like the Macbeths, will the onboard and airport experience change for good? Even if Covid-19 is finally checked by vaccines, testing and treatments, it is likely to still be part of our lives and affect our behaviours for years to come.
That is why the contact-free, virus-proofed cabin has become a preoccupation of the aircraft interiors business, with innovations that cut down on having to handle things – from lavatory fittings to in-flight entertainment. This week Qatar Airways unveiled “zero touch” technology that would allow passengers to access its IFE content via their own personal electronic devices, taking its “already rigorous and stringent Covid-19 precautions to another level”.
And to end on high note, the UAE has become the latest national authority to clear the Boeing 737 Max to return to service. That is good news for its biggest operator in the region, Flydubai, which has had 14 examples in storage since the type’s global grounding two years ago. Seven airlines across the Americas are now flying the re-engined narrowbody in revenue service again, and a week ago TUI’s Belgian unit became the first European carrier to reinstate it on a commercial flight.
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