US regional carrier Skywest warned this week that an impending pilot shortage – rather than disruption caused by Covid-19 – would be its biggest operational headache in 2022. The Utah-based airline, which provides feeder services for several majors, may not be a big name, but its concern is symptomatic of a wider challenge facing the sector.
At the start of the crisis in 2020, stay-at-home mandates and a ban on most international travel meant airline fleets were grounded. Many senior captains, nearing retirement, took up the offer of severance packages and left the industry. When traffic rebounded, larger airlines were able to fill cockpit vacancies by promoting first officers and recruiting from the regionals.
However, lower salaries and a US rule that prevents pilots with fewer than 1,500 hours flying commercially mean regional carriers are now struggling to attract recruits from traditional sources – flight schools, the military and general aviation. One solution could be luring them with hefty sign-on fees, but this can upset existing staff and impact the wafer-thin margins some airlines operate on.
While, a buoyant US domestic aviation sector is causing new problems there, in Asia-Pacific it is the over-cautious approach to the pandemic that is leaving airlines on their knees and thousands of pilots still on furlough or unemployed. There was some positive news this week from New Zealand – a country that has effectively sealed its borders for two years.
Wellington announced a five-step plan to reopen international travel, but it will be well into the second half of the year before rules are completely removed. And while exiled New Zealanders desperate to see family members may accept self-isolation rules on arrival as a price worth paying, it will hardly encourage a rapid recovery in the inbound tourism the economy relies on.
Elsewhere in the wider region, continuing restrictive entry rules mean prospects remain uncertain at best, particularly on the international side. Australia started to allow passport-holders living overseas back in late last year, but the Omicron wave has made politicians nervous about plans to relax regulations further. India may start allowing foreigners in from the end of the month.
Japan too remains shut to overseas visitors until at least late February, and, while South Korea technically allows fully-vaccinated visa-holders to fly in, the extensive paperwork involved is likely to deter all but the most intrepid. The country is likely to see just over a fifth of the international passenger traffic this month it had in February 2019.
China and its once-thriving global business hub Hong Kong are sealed off indefinitely as Beijing continues to implement a zero-Covid strategy. So too is Malaysia, which scrapped plans to open to tourists following the arrival of Omicron. Indonesia is similarly tricky to visit, although the resort of Bali has looser rules. The Philippines and Thailand have begun tentative moves to relaxing borders.
While international air cargo and domestic tourism has provided a lifeline for some of the region’s airlines, it is likely to be some time before the industry there is experiencing the sort of pilot shortage seen in the USA. It seems a different age that fast-growing Asian carriers were offering attractive packages to lure experienced flight crew from North America and Europe.
Air cargo has been one of the few boom areas of the past two years, and seems set to continue to thrive. This week, Boeing confirmed it is developing a freighter version of its 777X to compete with the A350F Airbus launched late last year. With an order for 34, Qatar Airways is to be launch customer for the 777-8F, which will now come to market ahead of the -8 passenger variant.
Although the final delivery of the 747-8 jumbo freighter is due this year, Boeing is still building cargo versions of the 767 and current 777, while Airbus has the A330. The passenger-to-freighter conversion market also remains buoyant. The fact that both big airframers are committing to design latest-generation widebody freighters shows that they have great faith in the future of the sector.
Finally, a passenger had a lucky escape after changing seats during a flight, when a broken propeller blade penetrated the cabin on an Airlink BAe Jetstream 41, just where the individual had been sitting. It happened as the turboprop landed at Venetia airfield when the engine was hit by a kori bustard, a bird that can weigh up to 18kg.
The blade scythed through the cabin, smashing a window on the left-hand third row, where the passenger had been allocated for weight balance reasons, South African air accident investigators have said. However, with only four passengers on board, the person had shifted to sit in the aft cabin early in the flight, leaving the third-row seat vacant when the blade struck.
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