With Omicron cases spiraling and many countries imposing fresh travel restrictions after a period when the trend had been towards opening up, there seems little for the aviation industry to be festive about as the holiday season begins. However, what is different this time from March 2020 and even early 2021 is that airlines remain upbeat about the immediate future. Little may be yet known about how dangerous this latest, fast-spreading variant is, but the sector still seems to be anticipating a strong northern hemisphere summer season.
Evidence for this comes from the announcement of new services by a number of carriers. Lufthansa, for instance, will fly Frankfurt to St Louis thrice-weekly in 2022, the first transatlantic link to the Mid-West city for 19 years. British Airways and Iberia also plan new US routes. One of the world’s busiest hubs, London Heathrow, has been cleared by the regulator to raise its charges, despite passenger traffic falling from almost 81 million in 2019 to an expected 45 million in 2022. It is an indication of an airport operator confident that airline customers will not be sufficiently deterred to relocate.
That said, there are still pockets of deep gloom, based on immediate past performance at least. Qantas this week described losses of A$1.1 billion ($790 million) as one of its “worst halves” since the start of the pandemic. Although the carrier has begun flying Australians abroad for the first time since early 2020, for most of the six-month period its international traffic was more or less limited to freight services. Meanwhile, lockdowns in individual states also impacted its domestic revenues.
Chinese airlines were one of the first to show signs of recovery in 2020 as a closed-off country returned to near-business-as-usual in terms of internal air connections. However, China’s big three airlines are reporting plummeting passenger numbers for the last few months of the year, as Beijing tightens travel restrictions in response to the spread of the Delta variant. As with Australia, China’s borders have remained closed for almost two years, so carriers have had to rely on a domestic market that has lurched up and down on ever-changing rules.
The Christmas period and early months of the year are traditionally a time for Canadians to escape their wintery climes for breaks in the sun. However, the sector has been dealt a blow after the federal government this week warned citizens not to leave the country, except for essential reasons. Although not, so far, a legal ban, health minister Jean-Yves Duclos made it very clear that “now is not the time to travel”. With Omicron cases still relatively low in Canada, Ottawa is keen to avoid the variant being imported, although there is little evidence that this policy does more than delay the inevitable.
After a successful Dubai Airshow, Airbus has continued a fine run of orders, with Air France-KLM signing up for up to 160 A320neos – 100 of them firm commitments. Although deliveries will not begin until the second half of 2023, and many will be replacements for older types, it is another sign of airlines looking optimistically beyond Covid-19. The Franco-Dutch airline group is also buying four examples of the newly-launched A350 Freighter, the first new-build cargo aircraft on the market for many years.
Urban air mobility is another area of aviation in which there is plenty optimism, and investors prepared to back the hype with hard cash. The UK’s Vertical Aerospace this week became a New York listed company after a reverse takeover by a special purpose acquisition company. Firms such as Vertical see a future where electrically-powered, vertical take-off aircraft – its VX4 carries four passengers – will provide an answer to city congestion. Several other developers are also attracting big money backers, despite the fact that none of these platforms have yet flown, and there are huge question marks over certification and the rules around how they will operate.
Finally, the end of an era – again. After announcing early in 2019 that the programme was being wound-up, Airbus this week handed over its final A380 to the superjumbo’s most loyal customer, Emirates. It brought total deliveries of the world’s largest airliner to 251, almost half of which – 123 – have been for the Dubai airline. Despite the end of production, and many other customers axing or reducing their fleets, the A380 is destined to remain a familiar sight in Emirates colours for many years to come.
welcome aboard the new airside
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