The near-term and longer-term future – in the form of recovery from the pandemic and the push for a net carbon neutral air travel sector – dominated the agenda at this week’s IATA summit. The gathering of the great and the good in the airline world, in Boston, was the first of the Covid era, and the atmosphere among delegates – several of whom have rarely been able to travel themselves in the past 20 months – was upbeat.
There was a huge sense of relief that the worst seems to be over, and all eyes are on rebuilding a battered industry. Sir Tim Clark of Emirates went so far as to say that by 2022 “we will have forgotten all about this, in terms of what it did to travel”. United Airlines’ Scott Kirby agreed the crisis is “in the rear-view mirror”. Achieving sustainability targets may be harder, although airline bosses said emerging from the downturn would see a new dedication to environmental stewardship.
However, despite the confidence of airline leaders in Boston, it is clear that recovery has some way to go, as any out-of-work pilot – particularly those working for airlines still largely grounded by border closures – will attest. Measures such as vaccine certificates and compulsory PCR tests are likely to be a feature of air travel for some time, although they are also proving to be the key to getting the world flying again.
Canada is the latest country to insist all air travelers, and all airline staff, must be jabbed – in its case by the end of October. A Democratic US Senator is pushing for a similar requirement south of the border, but strong resistance to vaccine mandates mean legislation is unlikely to be passed. Not so in much of the Asia-Pacific region – whose airlines have been worst hit by the Covid crisis. There at least three carriers have made it compulsory for all passengers to be fully-vaccinated before flying.
Each week brings news of airlines resuming services axed by the pandemic, with domestic networks recovering fastest. Vietnam will allow internal flights to resume from a number of major cities from 10 October (again, all passengers must have had the double-vaccination, and from some airports a negative coronavirus test will be required). Meanwhile, in Canada, regional carrier Porter is once again flying to all its year-round destinations after an almost 18-month lull in operations.
In the UK, an abandoned plan by British Airways to restart European services from London’s second airport, Gatwick, could be back on after pilots this week agreed terms with the airline. BA has not operated short-haul flights to the Continent from Gatwick since the pandemic, and wanted to relaunch the business on a tighter cost structure to allow it to compete with EasyJet and other no-frills carriers. However, pilots represented by the union BALPA had previously rejected the move.
The UK airline is also planning to return the Airbus A380 to the skies in November. It grounded its 12 superjumbos in March 2020, but unlike airlines such as Air France, had never formally retired the now out-of-production type. The decision by the US government to open its borders to UK and other European travelers from November is a significant factor in its decision to bring back at least four examples, which it will use initially on flights to Miami and Los Angeles.
While BA is proud of its flagship type, the A380’s biggest fan has always been, and still is, Emirates’ Clark, who said on the sidelines of the IATA event that he could not understand why other airlines could not make money from the double-decker. Emirates has 118 of them in its fleet, almost 10 times as many as any other carrier. The veteran airline boss says passengers love the A380, which he describes as “the most beautiful aircraft that’s ever flown” and a “Ritz-Carlton” of the airliner world.
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