Airlines face next big test with return to heaven after year of hibernation

On a gray early spring morning in the south of England, Gatwick airport airfield is strangely quiet. Rows of planes remain silent, their engines wrapped in brightly colored covers to protect them.

The only movement through an airport that can handle nearly 1,000 flights a day is a single empty airliner carried across the tarmac, a sign of the devastating impact of the pandemic.

But now, after a year in a state of suspended animation, the $ 800 billion airline industry faces another big challenge as it prepares for the unprecedented logistics operation to restart travel from mass once the borders reopened. It can’t happen soon enough for the industry’s forecast to hit $ 95 billion this year.

“Scaling up to suddenly handle a million plus passengers per month this summer is a major operation that will take many weeks,” Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate told the Financial Times.

With one of the two terminals closed, flights only operating 30 hours a day and stores empty, he wants governments to clarify their situation to help the airport prepare.

“It is essential that we have as much certainty as possible about how and when to return from the trip,” he said.

A few miles from the deserted departure halls of Gatwick, the easyJet training center is a hive of activity as it prepares for the return to the air.

One of Gatwick Airport’s two terminals is closed and flights only operate 30 hours a day © Hollie Adams / Getty

Six multi-million-pound simulators are capable of almost perfectly mimicking the demands of piloting an aircraft, using identical cockpits and surprisingly realistic computer graphics.

For the past year, they have been in use for 20 hours a day between 6.30am and 2.30am, allowing pilots to retain their experience while their planes are on the ground.

“We never deactivate people, we maintain them, from pilots and co-pilots to cabin crew,” said Mark Farquhar, easyJet’s training manager, speaking after a morning spent training in the landing at Lisbon and Vienna airports. “As soon as our passengers are ready to go, we are ready.”

Line graph of the% change in traffic compared to 2019 showing that European airspace remains calm more than a year after the onset of the crisis

British Airways has 15 simulators at its Heathrow base, which operate 24/7 to ensure pilots have worked the minimum number of hours to maintain their licenses.

All BA and easyJet pilots have retained their license through a combination of simulators, rotational staff, and the few commercial and maintenance flights still in progress.

Likewise, the UK air traffic control service NATS uses simulators to remind its staff of what it means to steer heavy traffic after months of calm airspace.

“It’s easy to handle little traffic, we don’t need to plan for that. What we need to plan for is if North America suddenly opens up, how would we react to that, ”said Juliet Kennedy, director of operations at NATS.

In the United States, Delta and United Airlines have avoided leave for pilots to ensure they could meet demand once mass travel resumes.

United chief executive Scott Kirby said the airline has reached an agreement with its pilots union “to maintain the current flight status to allow for a faster ramp-up of capacity as demand returns. “.

EasyJet simulators at the company training base near Gatwick Airport

EasyJet simulators at the company’s training base near Gatwick Airport © Philip Georgiadis

American Airlines has adjusted its pilot training program and has now recalled 2,000 pilots on leave.

The holidays often force pilots to train on other planes, and the American Pilots Union said the airline’s moves created a deadlock in the training schedule.

Captain Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the United States Pilots Union, said the “dime and stupid kilo” changes “clogged” the airline’s training program. About 350 pilots have received the training they need to complete in April.

“We have pilots who are just waiting for training, and there is no room,” he said.

“The decisions they made to save money today can put income at risk in the future,” he added. “It’s like not having enough seats in the theater, and you open the doors. Eventually, people will go to another theater. “

One of the big challenges is estimating how many planes and flight crews to plan as the pandemic has disrupted airlines’ ability to forecast future demand.

Chart showing the biggest airlines have racked up over $ 320 billion in debt

Crew members check in for work flights about six weeks in advance with Southwest Airlines, a flight attendant said.

As demand increased, Southwest added flights after listing ended, providing additional compensation for employees to work on their days off.

If a carrier is too ambitious, it risks burning more money by stealing half-empty planes. But if they are too conservative, they could miss the recovery.

“The cost burden for an airline increases as the flight is re-established, and long before significant revenue can be delivered,” said John Strickland, aviation consultant.

Ryanair, not known for its conservatism, this week outlined plans to fly 80% of pre-pandemic levels from mid-June, but also warned it could reduce that if borders do not open on time.

“These are appeals for judgment, I am not a forecaster,” said airline general manager Michael O’Leary. “We have tried to run the business with the best information we have.”

The restart can be problematic – but it’s a challenge executives will appreciate after a year of hibernation.

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