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


On a grey early spring morning in southern England, the airfield at Gatwick airport is eerily quiet. Rows of planes stand silent, their engines wrapped in brightly coloured covers to protect them.

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

But now, after a year in a state of suspended animation, the $800bn airline industry faces another big challenge as it prepares for the unprecedented logistical operation to restart mass travel once borders reopen. It cannot come soon enough for an industry forecast to burn up to $95bn this year.

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

With one of the two terminals closed, flights running at just 30 a day and shops empty, he wants clarity from governments to help the airport get ready.

“It is vital we get as much certainty about how and when travel will return as soon as possible,” he said.

A few miles away from the deserted departure halls at Gatwick, easyJet’s training centre is a hive of activity as it prepares for the return to the skies.

Inside North terminal at Gatwick airport
One of the two terminals at Gatwick airport is closed, and flights are running at just 30 a day © Hollie Adams/Getty

Six multimillion pound simulators are able to near-perfectly reproduce the demands of piloting an aircraft, using identical cockpits and startlingly lifelike 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 maintain experience while their planes are grounded.

“We never switch people off, we maintain them, from pilots and first officers to cabin crew,” said easyJet training manager Mark Farquhar, who was speaking after an early morning spent practising landing at Lisbon and Vienna airports. “As soon as our passengers are ready to go, we are ready.”

Line chart of % change in traffic vs 2019 showing European airspace remains quiet more than a year into the crisis

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

All pilots at both BA and easyJet have retained their licences through a combination of simulators, rotating staff and by flying the few commercial and maintenance flights still running.

Similarly, the UK’s air traffic control service NATS has been using simulators to remind its staff what it is like to direct heavy traffic, after months of quiet airspace.

“It is easy to deal with little traffic, we don’t need to plan for that. What we do need to plan for is if North America suddenly opened up, how would we respond to that,” said Juliet Kennedy, operations director at NATS.

In the US, Delta and United Airlines avoided furloughs for pilots with an eye to making sure they could meet demand once mass travel restarted.

United chief executive Scott Kirby said the airline made a deal with its pilot union “to maintain current flying status to enable a quicker ramp-up in capacity as demand returns”.

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

American Airlines adjusted its pilot training schedule and has now recalled 2,000 furloughed pilots.

Furloughs often force pilots to train on other aircraft, and American’s pilot union said the airline’s moves have created a training schedule logjam.

Captain Dennis Tajer, spokesperson for American’s pilot union, said the “penny wise, pound-foolish” changes have “clogged” the airline’s training schedule. About 350 pilots have training they need to complete in April.

“We have pilots that are just awaiting training, and there’s no space,” he said.

“The decisions that they made to save money today may jeopardise revenue in the future,” he added. “It’s like not having enough seats at the theatre, and you open the doors. Eventually people will go to another theatre.”

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

Chart showing that the largest airlines have built up more than $320bn of debt

Crew members sign up to work flights about six weeks in advance at Southwest Airlines, said one flight attendant.

As demand has picked up, Southwest has added flights after the sign-up ends, offering extra pay for employees to work on their days off.

If a carrier is too ambitious, they risk burning through more cash flying half empty planes. But if they are too conservative, then they could miss out on the recovery.

“The cost load for an airline increases as flying is restored, and well before any significant revenues may be delivered,” said John Strickland, an aviation consultant.

Ryanair, not known for its conservatism, this week set out plans to fly 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels from the middle of June, but also warned it could scale this down if borders do not open in time.

“These are judgment calls, I am not a forecaster,” the airline’s chief executive Michael O’Leary said. “We’ve tried to manage the business with the best information we have.”

The restart may throw up problems — but it is a challenge executives will welcome after a year of hibernation.

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