Post-pandemic travel: ready for take-off?
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The aviation sector had to adapt fast when Covid hit. Some changes will stay as passengers start to return.
Unquestionably, the pandemic has resulted in aviation’s biggest ever peacetime crisis. From aircraft manufacturers to airlines, from maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) to supply and service organisations, aviation has been hit extremely hard by Covid-19.
The immense challenges, including enterprise survival, have forced aviation to adapt on an unprecedented scale to meet customers’ ever-changing requirements. And significantly, the sector continues to play an absolutely critical role in fighting the pandemic.
Let’s set the scene on some of the technical fronts, what the situation is now and where things are likely to be heading.
For starters, aircraft have still had to be maintained during the pandemic – passengers stopped flying for the most part, but cargo has most definitely not. In parallel, digitisation and sustainability are two compelling factors that are carrying aviation forwards, both boosted by pandemic effects.
In time, we may or may not all fly as much as we did, but we certainly want to be able to, for business and pleasure, safely and in highly efficient aircraft.
Bluntly, Covid-19 has meant hundreds of aircraft parked up, all dressed up, nowhere to fly. But even parked aircraft have mandated maintenance and visual inspection requirements. From fuel, water, and hydraulic leak checks to foreign object inspections such as birds’ nests. All bungs and intake covers have to remain in good condition. All in readiness for pre-flight preparations.
Operationally, although there has been a lower volume of work passing through MRO workshops, engines have still had to be serviced according to scheduled requirements – even more critical given the ramped-up cargo activity. From the start, Covid-19 safety essentials had to be slotted into the already demanding routines – not easy or risk-free for those at the sharp end. Even with short-time working provisions, some job losses have been inevitable – hence the problems of managing lost skills, experience, and expertise that subsequently may have to be replaced. E&T has learned of one MRO specialist that very successfully changed its apprentice scheme from a classroom approach to on-the-job mentoring.
Aviation has also had to deal with the restrictions on movement of people according to differing regulations across multiple jurisdictions. For anyone recruiting, it has also been difficult to co-ordinate interviews due to travel restrictions.
Leading engine and services company GE Aviation reported that more training is now being delivered via laptops and mobile phones using YouTube videos and the like. Another major provider, MTU Aero Engines, is also using new digital touchpoints with its customers to compensate for lack of face-to-face meetings. Even now it is about optimising resources to fit new realities.
GE Aviation also highlighted some of its key planning processes; one in particular is for customers to provide material orders and to schedule ‘shop visits’ earlier – then be better prepared for recovery. Other specifics include a more detailed understanding of aviation industry indicators to ensure capacity is available when it is needed, and modelling aircraft departure rates to support operational planning. Clearly, continuous customer engagement on all fronts has never been so important.
Further down the line, supply chain issues for parts and components have included shortages due to suppliers closing down or moving to short-term working. Where practical, inventory had to be increased or alternative suppliers lined up in reserve, with everyone doing their utmost to keep aircraft and their engines serviceable.
The one big opportunity stimulated by the pandemic is digitisation. Initiatives to boost efficiency and reduce costs are being pressed into service as rapidly as possible. One company suggested that greater cooperation between airlines, MRO providers and digital solution specialists is key to getting the most value from tech investments.
MTU, the world’s largest independent MRO services provider, is integrating its engine-monitoring tool with engine fleet management software. This will enable intelligent maintenance costing and planning – generating engine-management scenarios and work scopes. Smart predictions using AI present MRO planning scenarios, which can then be adapted as new situations have to be factored in.
An even greater and more fundamental issue is sustainability. Quite possibly, the impact of Covid-19 could prove to be a sizeable catalyst for the aviation sector. US engine manufacturer Pratt and Whitney says that sustainability has emerged as a critical topic in the recovery. The company is transforming its operations, products and services through reduced environmental impact and addressing whole lifecycle positions. Pratt and Whitney defines aggressive, five-yearly environmental goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste and to increase recycling rates.
One aspect of aviation currently in the ascendent is passenger to freighter conversions (PTF). Forecasts suggest that the world needs more cargo planes, perhaps an additional 750 converted aircraft by 2031. Given current trends, most of these will be narrow-body conversions such as Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 models.
AEI, the world’s oldest freighter conversion company, is sold out until mid-2022, delivering 37 aircraft in 2021 and 47 in 2022. A number of new investments to expand conversion capacity are in progress and recognising the opportunity, Caerdav, the Cardiff-based MRO specialist, is set to start conversions later this year.
All this runs in parallel with pandemic effects continuing to wash through – notably, some sizeable effects on aircraft valuation and availability. In particular, we are seeing a trend for parked aircraft to be offered to the market instead of incurring storage costs.
Pressure is on to convert aircraft faster and more efficiently. Singapore-based specialist ST Engineering recently introduced a robotic floor-drilling solution – automating a previously labour-intensive process. The solution can also be used for other repeatable processes, delivering quality improvements with less risk of human error. With sustainability in mind, the robotics have a ‘dark factory’ mode to minimise energy consumption and manpower during night-time operations.
It may be some time before the world will have enough cargo aircraft, but the industry is certainly striving to fulfil the demand.
With passenger travel hitting the floor, the pandemic has nonetheless created significant opportunities for cargo carriers. Those with established freight capabilities have stepped up, while others have transitioned minor cargo activities into effective and essential revenue generators.
Even prior to Covid-19, the growth of rapid delivery, online services and changing consumer buying habits were impacting air freight. But when the pandemic struck, moving goods around by air was pretty much the only game in town. And airlines did indeed have to move quickly – it was the only way to respond.
For one thing, an immediate consequence of the passenger flight fall-off was a severe reduction in belly capacity for cargo, coupled with the urgent imperative that a massive quantity of medical equipment, PPE and more recently vaccines had to be flown from source to destination. It’s unlikely that any pre-existing crisis management plan could have envisaged such a call, but no matter, things got into gear very effectively.
How ST Engineering converts an Airbus A321P2F
■ Remove seats and cabin interior fittings
■ Cargo door cut out, installation of the door and surround structure
■ Install revised hydraulics and simplified air distribution
■ Install replacement water and waste systems
■ Install window plugs, deactivate doors and emergency exits
■ Implement cockpit system upgrades
■ Install stronger cross beams or reinforce floor structure
■ Install in-cabin cargo barrier and sliding cabin access door
■ Install new crew entry door and relocate lavatory
■ Creation of merged cockpit and courier area
IAG Cargo (which uses the freight capacity of sister airlines BA, Aer Lingus, and Iberia) was one of many airlines that switched to a cargo-only schedule. The company also launched a new 24/7 charter service offering any of its aircraft to fly cargo to almost anywhere in the world. Virgin Atlantic established a cargo-only flight business – a first for the company. Meanwhile Lufthansa Cargo, which normally carries around half of its freight as belly cargo, not only had to maximise the use of its fleet of 16 cargo aircraft, but in common with other airlines, converted passenger aircraft for freight. Emirates said that the lost cargo capacity on passenger flights amounted to more than two-thirds of total availability in normal operations; the airline was left with 11 Boeing 777 freighters.
For Air Canada Cargo, the pandemic was a game-changer – transforming its business model and activating its fleet for cargo requests. A robust, sustainable network of cargo-only flights was set up to offset lost capacity and ensure business continuity. Air Canada Cargo said that the scale of the tasks of launching new routes, getting regulatory approvals, redeploying aircraft, and converting passenger cabins of Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s required a massive collaborative effort from across the entire company – an indicator of what went on across the industry and internationally.
The pandemic has surely amplified everyone’s dependence on air cargo to transport temperature-controlled products – fresh produce and pharmaceuticals and especially Covid-19 vaccines. Playing a vital role in global trade and just-in-time supply chains, IAG for example, reported that it has flown over 8,000 tonnes of parts for the automotive sector. Overall, there is a sense that stakeholders have become more acutely aware of air cargo capabilities for speed, flexibility, and efficiency.
Turning again to digi-tech, it’s clear that ‘analogue’ processes are on the way out for air cargo, as customers expect to use online services for an immediate response to what they need, 24/7. Once again, it’s about using digital technologies to be more competitive, more efficient and to set a course for future developments. We now expect to see touchscreen devices and hand-held scanners everywhere. In turn, they are collecting and sharing data faster; for cargo it means being able to instantly pinpoint any shipment, anywhere, any time. Gone is the phone, heralding on-line trading.
In 2019, Air Canada set up its Artificial Intelligence Centre of Excellence and several AI labs across the company, with cargo leading early implementations. AI applications include a tool that estimates remaining space and weight left for cargo after passenger factors have been considered. Other developments include a function to identify and reassess shipments with high likelihood of weight or volumetric errors. Clever stuff.
Emirates says that the company has seen a change from capacity being sold in longer-term arrangements to a more ad-hoc model – driving process automation. Lufthansa Cargo has been rolling out an application to check freight data before shipments arrive at the warehouse. Other new technologies such as the Internet of Things are on the carrier’s agenda.
Then there’s the exorable move towards sustainability. Simplistically, people could opt to fly less, but cargo will always need to fly. Shipping has merits, but fast it is not. Last December, Air France KLM Martinair Cargo launched the world’s first sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) programme for the air freight industry. Enabling freight forwarders and shippers to reduce their CO2 emissions by powering a percentage of their flights with SAF, the programme will also help to scale up the SAF market, contributing to cleaner air transport. Things are heading in the right direction, but we won’t see wholesale transition and adoption for some time yet.
Clearly, there is a long way to go before aviation returns back to pre-pandemic levels. Essentially, the view is cautious, but realistic optimism. Absolutely, there are some positive signs – domestic travel within China, for example, is reportedly back to pre-pandemic levels, and there is good recovery within the US. Interestingly, the majority of aircraft back in service are the newer types and hence the most economical, i.e. cheapest to operate.
From an observer’s viewpoint, aviation’s Covid-19 fall-out remains in progress, with an expectation of more market exits or consolidations. It seems highly probable that major players will be looking at their structures and market positions. Specifically, recovery uncertainties have led to airlines postponing long-term aircraft fleet planning decisions.
On the upside, there are certainly gains for those operating the newer, fuel-saving aircraft, which have been used for preference during the crisis, hence driving the maintenance sector. Even now, it seems likely that while some airlines continue to concentrate on short-term savings with cash preservation, others may be in a better position to focus on long-term planning. Survival of the fittest springs to mind.
Viewed with a ‘glass half-full’ perspective, the pandemic has struck aviation very hard and painfully low, but it has been a case of ‘the show must go on’. And indeed it has.
Aircraft manufacturers looking forward
Clearly, the world urgently needs more fuel-efficient aircraft and before the pandemic, many airlines were on track to introduce more of the latest Airbus or Boeing aircraft to their fleets. Manufacturer order books were looking pretty healthy. But not only has the pandemic caused a massive hiatus in production and orders, Boeing is still reeling from grounding the 737MAX for 20 months. A tragic and extremely high impact example that demonstrates that new ‘state-of-the-art’ aircraft usually means delays and costly entry into service issues. Simplistically, such are the dynamics of the market and the very lengthy time – 8-10 years – it takes to produce a new aircraft, even the best aircraft solution can be thwarted if the game changes. Any delay in filling the opportunity can also spell trouble. Take the Airbus A380; fantastically impressive, but the world no longer needs supersized, four-engine aircraft.
Cutting to the chase there are two significant new aircraft coming up that may well hit their chosen sweet spots. The Airbus A321XLR (extra-long range) due to enter service in 2023 will be the longest range (4700nm) single aisle aircraft. With 180-200 seats, the A321XLR is aimed at the point-to-point routes that don’t need larger twin-aisle jets. The order book currently has over 450 aircraft – it could easily grow to 1,000 plus.
Boeing’s new aircraft programme may be a little more cloudy. The 777X (384-426 seats) is the company’s new wide-body offer and set to compete with the Airbus A350-1000 that entered service in early 2018. Boeing is sitting on around 320 777X orders, but the already delayed entry into service penned as late 2023 – three years late, could slip further. Essentially, the 777X, with the possibility of a 450-seat version, is a replacement for retiring 747s and A380s. Both aircraft need to succeed for all of aviation’s benefit, but reading between the runways, Airbus is currently looking like the stronger player. Remember of course that in aircraft manufacturing, a week can be a very long time.
Rolls-Royce puts LibreStream to work
With digital visual technology making a big impact for aviation; for engineer training, engine inspections and service approval, Rolls-Royce is putting LibreStream Onsight Connect to very good use. In training situations, an ultrasound probe is inserted into the engine and connected to the trainer’s device using a secure video stream. The probe’s images are shared to confirm positioning with views of the equipment being handled, drawing on interested areas and taking pictures for reference.
Prior to Covid-19, Rolls-Royce would have sent an inspector to check an engine, or the airline would have sent their engineers to Derby for training. Now, airlines can carry out their own inspections to get aircraft back in the air more quickly. The company is looking to use Librestream for more complex inspections and making mutually-agreed decisions on engine condition and health. Ultimately, digital solutions enable the massive increase in engine data to maximise aircraft availability. After all, an aircraft only earns money when it is in the air.
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