The blame game continues over who was responsible for this summer’s air travel disruption in the USA, just as it does in Europe. The period from May to August saw airports and airlines in both regions struggle to cope with a faster than anticipated bounce-back in passenger demand, with thousands of flights cancelled at the last minute, multiple incidents of delayed and lost luggage, and long lines at security.
Airports, operators and governments have all pointed the finger at each other, with US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg the latest to accuse airlines of scheduling more flights than they could staff, despite taking billions of dollars in pandemic aid to keep workers on the payroll. It comes after airline executives, including United Airlines’ Scott Kirby, insisted the chaos was largely the fault of the Federal Aviation Administration having too few air traffic controllers.
The big question now is what lessons the industry has learned. Covid-19 was unprecedented and, as late as the first quarter of 2022, the recovery trajectory remained uncertain, with politicians still changing rules at short notice. As in almost every part of the economy, many experienced staff quit jobs and did not return. However, as a relieved travelling public returned to the skies in force, almost no part of aviation covered itself in glory for the way it managed the situation.
Another area where some are accusing the industry of muddled thinking is the environment. Currently, most of the effort to make aviation more sustainable revolves around cutting carbon output – most countries have set a 2050 target for net-zero C02 emissions. Yet, speakers at this week’s Aviation Carbon 2022 conference in London said nitrogen oxides (NOx) and contrails produced by aircraft could also have a significant impact on global warming.
One of the biggest potential levers the industry has when it comes to lowering its environmental footprint is propulsion systems that do not involve the burning of fossil fuels. One of the pioneers of electric-powered flight has been Eviation. This week, the US start-up announced its latest customer, with new German airline Evia Aero signing a tentative agreement for 25 of Eviation’s all-electric Alice. It joins an order book that contains the likes of Cape Air, DHL and Global Crossing Airlines.
The nine-seat Alice is due to enter service in 2027. While small regional aircraft from the likes of Eviation and Heart Aerospace could play a significant role in de-carbonizing aviation, laws of science dictate against larger electric-powered aircraft – batteries would simply have to be too big. That is where other technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells – which Airbus is investing much research effort into – could be crucial, but a breakthrough in that field remains at least a decade away.
The sort of airline that could benefit from electric aircraft is Loganair. The small, Scottish-based carrier, which specialises in serving remote communities, has nudged into profit after two years of pandemic-induced losses. It comes as long-time owners, Stephen and Peter Bond, begin a process to sell the 60-year-old firm. The brothers want to find a “custodian for the next generation” by mid-2023, with Loganair’s own management insisting that business strategy will not change.
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