Much depends, as always, on consumers and whether warnings about a potentially more transmissible form of the virus will lead to enough of them getting cold feet about travelling.
On Thursday, India became the latest country to suspend indefinitely plans to allow scheduled flights from abroad with few limitations from 15 December. It comes as the domestic industry there is experiencing a strong rebound from the crisis earlier this year, when a fresh wave of Covid-19 infections overwhelmed hospitals and forced states and cities into lockdowns. Leading low-cost carrier IndiGo, for instance, has actually added 11 more destinations to the 60 it was operating in 2019, serving several “tier three” cities for the first time.
Among airline chiefs, one of the most bullish is United Airlines’ Scott Kirby. Omicron, he told a conference this week, will be a short-term setback but will not stop long-term recovery. “The recovery from Covid was never going to be a straight line,” he admits. Where the new variant is likely to have the biggest effect is on international travel, because of border restrictions. Like all the US majors, United has been enjoying a buoyant domestic market all year, but is yet to see a significant recovery in its overseas business.
In Europe, the sentiment among airline bosses is similar, with expectations of a difficult festive holiday period, but hopes of a major uptick in summer bookings. Ryanair this week said it expected Christmas demand to be stifled by fresh travel restrictions after a November in which it flew more than 10 million passengers for the fourth consecutive month. Rivals EasyJet and Wizz Air are also staying focused on what they believe will be a strong market in mid-2022, while admitting that the impact of the Omicron variant remains uncertain for the next few weeks.
When the pandemic hit, a worry for the aviation safety community was how a prolonged cockpit absence would impact flying skills. This is a factor being looked at by those investigating a go-around incident involving a TUI Airways Boeing 737-800 at Aberdeen. Prior to the event, neither pilot had flown for significant periods during 11 months, and the Air Accidents Investigation Branch highlights the challenges in using simulators as a substitute for the real-world pressures and workload of line flying. Although no link has been established, it “is clearly a possibility”, the AAIB says.
We have written before about so-called Lazarus airlines: seemingly doomed operators that, despite the pandemic, have managed to survive or come back to life. One of them is Flybe, the UK regional carrier that was one of the first casualties of the crisis in March 2020. Relaunched from administration, the airline this week took delivery of its first new leased aircraft. Meanwhile, ITA – Italy’s collapsed Alitalia in all but name – has firmed up an order for 28 Airbus aircraft as part of a move to update its fleet.
United Airlines was in the news this week too for another reason. On Wednesday it became the first airline to operate a passenger flight partly on 100% sustainable aviation fuel. Partly on 100% SAF? The 737 Max 8 – carrying 100 invited guests from Chicago to Washington DC – flew with one wing tank and engine fueled by SAF, and the other by conventional Jet A. United, which had special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, says it wanted to demonstrate that flying with 100% SAF is safe. Current regulations restrict SAF flights to a 50% blend.
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