As much of Europe, including England, France and parts of Italy, tightened lockdowns last week, the impact on airline operations has continued to be felt. With only essential air travel now permitted from the UK, British Airways suspended all flights from London’s second airport, Gatwick. Its low-cost rival EasyJet, which has bases all over Europe, has said it will operate no more than a fifth of its planned capacity in the last quarter of 2020.
After some respite for the region’s carriers over the summer, the industry faces a harsh winter, with cash scarcer than ever. The only comfort is that things cannot get much worse. Airlines have slashed staff, including pilots, to the bare bones. In Europe, all eyes will be on spring and summer when we will find out whether positive developments on the vaccine, testing, and treatment front, and a hoped-for loosening of quarantine rules, will restore some confidence to the travel market.
For large chunks of aviation, including the business travel-dependent long-haul market, any summer holiday uplift in 2021 will be too late or largely irrelevant. Many of the world’s best-known flag-carriers, including Air France, ANA, British Airways, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, are storing, selling, or scrapping iconic airliners that until recently were the pride of their fleets – in many cases years before their natural span.
I visited recycling specialist Air Salvage International’s site near Gloucester in the UK this week to witness the sad sight of nine BA Boeing 747s awaiting their fate. Only one – set to become a visitor attraction – is guaranteed to be spared the cutter. Meanwhile, Japanese carriers ANA and JAL are retiring dozens of Boeing 777s, the backbone of both their domestic and international fleet. The airlines were among the earliest adopters of the original 777-200 three decades ago.
Increasing numbers of Airbus A380s, including those belonging to Air France, Qantas, and Singapore Airlines, are also being withdrawn from service, and, just over a decade after the type’s introduction, many are destined for destruction. Covid-19 did not kill the superjumbo – faced with an empty orderbook, Airbus ended the programme early last year. However, with only Emirates remaining a true believer in the quadjet, the crisis is likely to hasten its departure from the skies.
One of the A380’s many weaknesses was its relative lack of belly-hold capacity. Airbus’s original plan for an A380 freighter was rapidly abandoned, and no one is proposing a passenger-to-freighter conversion. Given that the freight market is one of the few bright lights for aviation, at least some 747s could have an afterlife as giant cargo carrier. The same applies to other widebody types. Iberia this week deployed its first converted Airbus A330 freighter between Madrid and Los Angeles.
UK cockpit union BALPA is a champion for pilots, but is telling those keen to take up a flying career not to bother. With 10,000 unemployed commercial pilots across Europe, its head of membership and careers, Wendy Pursey, says: “This is not a positive picture for anyone whose heart is set on entering this profession”. Others worry that with thousands of laid-off pilots unlikely to ever return to the flightdeck, turning off the tap of potential new recruits now could store problems for when demand bounces back in two or three years, much as it did after 9/11 two decades ago.
And finally, an uplifting story. Flying cars have been a dream since a patent for an early version was filed in 1918. James Bond confronted international villains in one. But no one has yet managed to bring an airworthy automobile to market. US company Terrafugia has been working on its concept for several years. Now a Slovakian start-up, called Klein Vision, hopes to beat its Chinese-owned rival to the skies after flying its prototype for the first time a few weeks ago.
The AirCar looks like a stylish, low-slung sports car – with a pusher propeller on the back. In three minutes – like something out of a superhero movie – it transforms to flying machine as wings fold out from the body, and twin beams, supporting a horizontal tailplane, extend from the rear. With some 50 hours of flight testing ahead to finesse the design, Klein Vision hopes to have a production model available by the middle of next year. For some pilots perhaps, the ultimate retirement toy?
welcome aboard the new airside
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