Beyond the Tarmac

The Covid-19 pandemic has plunged the global airline industry into its deepest peace-time crisis ever.

The travel industry has taken a huge hit as countries have gone on lockdown and limited travel to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The grounding of virtually all flights by many of world’s airlines and approved air traffic data highlight the enormity of the shock to aviation industries from coronavirus, which has emptied skies around the globe.

The collapse in demand is unprecedented. And airlines are struggling to match capacity to the fast-changing and unprecedented situation, emerging as a result of coronavirus.

With travel not expected to fully recover until mid-decade, airlines are reportedly “culling” aging jetliners and four-engine jumbos such as B747s and A380s from fleets to limit spending.

January 22, 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the first commercial flight by a jumbo -- Boeing 747, dubbed ‘The Queen of the Skies’.

According to Bloomberg, the Chicago-based Boeing “is pulling the plug” on its hulking 747 jumbo jet, ending a half-century run for the twin-aisle pioneer.

The last 747-8 will roll out of a Seattle-area factory in about two years, a decision that hasn’t been reported but can be teased out from “subtle wording changes” in financial statements, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg.

It’s a moment that aviation enthusiasts long have dreaded, signalling the end of the double-decker, four-engine leviathans that shrank the world.

European planemaker Airbus is already preparing to build the last A380 jumbo, after the final convoy of fuselage segments rumbled to its Toulouse, France, plant a couple of months ago.

Boeing’s superjumbo competitor, the Airbus A380, made its commercial debut in 2007.

British Airways, owned by International Airlines Group (IAG), recently said it will retire all of its Boeing 747s as it suffers from the sharp travel downturn.

The UK airline is the world's largest operator of the jumbo jets, with 31 in the fleet, which represent about 10% of BA's total fleet.

After 50 years of service, the Boeing 747 aircraft will no longer service Qantas, the famed Australian airline, which may be sending the iconic aircraft to California – where several others now sit – to be parked and stripped for parts in the ‘aircraft graveyard’ in the Mojave Desert.

In a statement, Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said the 747 changed the face of travel for Australians, noting their aircraft’s retirement was brought forward by six months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s hard to overstate the impact that the 747 had on aviation and a country as far away as Australia,” Joyce said.

The 747 is being replaced by “more fuel-efficient” aircraft with “better range”, like the 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350, according to the Qantas boss.

While the fleet was set to be retired this year, the Australian airline said the pandemic decimated travel globally, which moved up the retirement by six months.

Prominent Indian aviation analyst Ashwini Phadnis noted, “Fifty years is a long time and with aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus working at technologically superior aircraft, it is time for the older technology using aircraft like the 747 to fly into memory.”

In a column in The Business Line, Phadnis wrote, “Further, the world has become very environment­conscious during these decades and older aircraft like the 747 are fuel guzzlers and not as environment friendly as the newer ones.”

Aviation analysts say Airbus A350s and Boeing 787s are around 25% more fuel-efficient than the 747.

Global airline Qatar Airways’ growing fleet comprises many fuel-efficient A350s, B787s and B777s.

Recently, Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive Akbar al-Baker said, “Qatar Airways’ mixed fleet of aircraft “gives us the edge over competitors who only have one or two types of aircraft.

“Because we have different sizes of aircraft, it gives us that edge over other people that have only one or two types of aeroplanes. We have a mix of Boeing 787s, Airbus 350-900s and 350-1000s, Boeing 777-300s, and 777-200s. So depending upon what is the demand, we can rotate the capacity.

“And this gives Qatar Airways the resilience it has when it is competing at this difficult period of time,” the airline boss said.

Clearly, the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to leave the manufacturers of superjumbos scrounging to find buyers for the last jumbos built.

“As it turned out, the number of routes for which you need an ultra-large aircraft are incredibly few,” Sash Tusa, an analyst with Agency Partners told Bloomberg.

About 91% of 747s and 97% of A380s are parked, a June estimate by Credit Suisse showed.

As pandemic-hit airlines struggle to stay afloat, it is quite natural that they will opt for smaller aircraft, which are more environment-friendly.

And if B747 and A380 sign off the skies- albeit earlier than planned, it will truly mark the end of an era!

*Pratap John is Business Editor at Gulf Times. Twitter handle: @PratapJohn

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