Farnborough networking woes show how aviation is still in recovery mode

Airlines seeking to buy newer, fuel-efficient models to meet recovering demand

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Over a start-the-week breakfast, an Airbus senior executive was having a moan. He was feeling tired because his flight to Heathrow was delayed and by the time he emerged from the airport it was past midnight, then he had to get into the centre of London, to his hotel.

Once we’d finished our chat, he was heading back to his room, picking up his bag and joining the specially laid on trains taking aviation industry delegates to this year’s Farnborough International Airshow in Hampshire. At mention of the combination of get-together and aircraft and technology showcase, which alternates with Paris, his mood lifted.

Sure, it was going to be stiflingly hot — Britain is enjoying or suffering from its highest temperatures ever recorded — but, he said, smiling, this was going to be a “good Farnborough”. By that he meant that while there would be opportunities for networking galore and attendance is high — more than 80,000 visitors will take in 1,200 exhibitors from 64 countries across civil and military aviation in five days — his company and others would be unveiling block-busting orders.

Airbus and arch-rival Boeing are expected to announce a slew of deals at what is in effect, the sector’s biggest trade expo, the first one since 2018.

In that period, of course, we’ve had the Covid pandemic, which decimated civilian air travel, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has caused governments to review their defence capabilities. Meanwhile, as the weather and the Extinction Rebellion protesters blocking the route into the site vividly illustrate, the pressure on the industry to reduce carbon emissions is only intensifying.

That’s without the scenes being played out daily at Europe’s airports, where airline and terminal bosses who laid-off workers at the outbreak of Covid and onset of the downturn, have struggled to replace them. This, while travellers are flocking back to flying. The resulting chaos caused by thousands of cancellations and long queues has led to angst and fury for many and provoked clashes between airlines and airports.

Visitors look at a model of the Wisk Aero autonomous aircraft at Farnborough. AP

At Heathrow, the airport chiefs tried to restrict capacity to manageable numbers, down to 100,000 passengers a day from the pre-pandemic 125,000, only for Emirates to say they would defy the limit and not cut flights. In a sign of the complicated nature of the industry, in its defence, Emirates said a large amount of its customers were connecting with other flights, and they would need new onward connections which would be difficult if not impossible to arrange. Emirates has now agreed to cap sales of tickets out of Heathrow until mid-August.

While there were reports of traffic and train delays in getting to and from Farnborough, inside the showground it was as if the problems being experienced elsewhere this summer did not exist. The talk was all about recovery, a spectacular return in confidence and the promise of a golden future.

Even allowing for the tendency for those in any business to big up their prospects, the sea of announcements testified to the optimism. Of the two giants, Boeing is under greater pressure. The US manufacturer is desperate to bolster its 737 Max brand, the design that was involved in two fatal crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia.

Visitors look at a Airbus A350 plane flying over the airshow. AFP

It brought to Farnborough the 737 Max 10, a newer and bigger version of the original. To support its bounce back, Boeing proclaimed that Delta had agreed to buy 100 of the juggernaut 737 Max 10, with an option for a further 30. The US carrier will take delivery of the giant, stretched fuselage aircraft from 2025 to 2029.

Not to be outdone, Airbus is expected to sell 12 of its A220s to Delta, bringing the Atlanta-based airline’s total outlay to almost $7bn. Airbus is closing in on the sale of 30 A330neo wide-body jets to Malaysia Airlines and 60 A220s to Lot of Poland. Germany’s Condor is in talks to purchase 40 A320neo planes from Airbus.

Meanwhile, Jet Airways India, which is relaunching, is making up its mind between Airbus A320neo and A220 or Boeing’s 737 Max or Embraer’s SA. These are only some of the contracts under discussion. On it goes, this merry-go-round of mega-deals: Royal Air Maroc is weighing up whether to go with Boeing or Airbus as the Moroccan airline replaces its ageing fleet; in the run-up to Farnborough, China flexed its considerable muscle, placing an order for 290 Airbus A320neo aircraft worth $37bn.

An Embraer E190-E2 aircraft on display. AFP

What’s driving the deal-making is rising passenger air traffic demand, forecast to climb by 3.6 per cent a year for the next 20 years, and airlines seeking to buy newer, fuel-efficient and therefore more environmentally acceptable models.

On the defence side, Russia’s invasion has made countries rethink their military line-ups, forcing them to re-equip their air forces. That section of the industry is also upbeat.

It’s not all easy-going, however. Just as ordinary folks are experiencing problems in flying from A to B so too are the aircraft makers encountering supply issues. Airbus, which is planning to boost production, is reporting that difficulties in manufacturing engines are seeing it sitting on 20 ‘gliders’ – fully-built aircraft without engines – that are waiting to be shipped.

These though, again, are regarded as temporary glitches.

Published: July 20, 2022, 4:00 AM
Updated: July 21, 2022, 8:15 PM