2020: The year the changed aviation – Part 3

written by Hannah Dowling | December 24, 2020
737 MAX Family in flight (Boeing)

2020 has without a doubt brought about the single biggest disruptor to the global aviation sector potentially ever seen: the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 31 December, 2019, Chinese authorities officially revealed they were treating a small number of citizens suffering from a mysterious illness in Wuhan. No one knew just what this would mean for the international community in the months to come.

Join us here at World of Aviation in reminiscing and recounting the year that the aviation industry will never forget.

In case you missed it, we have already discussed the months of January, February and March here, as well as April, May and June here.

Let’s get into it.

JULY

If you’ve read Part Two of our deep-dive into aviation in 2020, we discussed the fact the 30 per cent of Pakistan’s pilots were accused of obtaining their licenses under false pretenses – that is, by paying someone to take their written exams on their behalf.

By mid-July, 34 pilots had their licenses officially suspended, as the validity of their licenses could not be appropriately verified.

The fallout of this discovery was fairly widespread.

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Aviation authorities in both the European Union and United States revoked permissions for Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) to operate flights in their respective airspaces, with both implementing six month flight bans against the airline.

Airlines continue to struggle, cutting network and staff

Generally speaking, July held little optimism for airlines, as second waves of COVID-19 infections began to peak around the globe.

By 2 July, British low-cost carrier easyJet announced its plans to close bases at Stansted, Southend and Newcastle.

It followed news that nearly a third of the company were on the chopping block, including 1,300 cabin crew and 727 pilots.

Meanwhile, Icelandair said it would “permanently terminate” all its cabin crew, and requested that its pilots “temporarily” take over their roles from 20 July, following a breakdown of union negotiations.

In Britain, UK trade union Unite warned British Airways its workforce were primed to strike, over the airline’s controversial plans to “fire and rehire” up to 12,000 staff on poorer terms.

European planemaker Airbus announced it planned to cut 15,000 more jobs, over 10 per cent of its global workforce by mid-2021, though it hoped to do so largely through early retirement of staff, or voluntary redundancies.

Airlines seeing record-breaking losses

July also saw airlines posting record-breaking losses when they reported earnings figures for the first quarter of the 2021/21 financial year.

Singapore Airlines announced it was expecting to report a material operating loss for the first quarter of the 2020/21 financial year, as well as expecting to see the carrier experience its first annual loss since its founding, in January 1972.

The news came after the airline reported a record net loss of US$531 million in the March quarter, impacted heavily by the instantaneous drop off in travel demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as fuel-hedging losses.

Elsewhere, United Airlines recorded its worst quarterly loss in the company’s 94-year history, when it posted a loss of $1.6 billion. For the three months ending 30 June, total operating revenue was down 87 per cent.

Boeing update

July was another month of highs and lows for Boeing.

Early in the month, the FAA concluded its three days of flight testing on the 737 MAX, and provided an update on the recertification process. So far, the process appeared to go smoothly, however the regulator reiterated that Boeing was not across the finish line just yet.

Sources later suggested that the FAA would be looking towards recertifying the aircraft by October 2020.

Just days later, on 8 July, World of Aviation reported that Boeing had settled nearly all wrongful deaths claims linked to the ill-fated Lion Air Flight 610, which crashed in October 2018, killing 189 people.

Boeing said that claims relating to 171 of 189 people on board the flight have been resolved. 

Though the public filing did not disclose the amount paid out to victims’ estates, sources cited by Reuters in November 2019 suggest that some Lion Air cases had been settled for around $1.2 million apiece. 

In another blow for Boeing, the FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive for its 737 aircraft, warning of potential corrosion issues on planes that have been parked amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which could lead to a dual engine failure.

This fault was reported to be as a result of corrosion, caused by the plane remaining grounded for a period of seven or more straight days.

Days later, Boeing announced it would slash its production output across all its models, following a larger-than-anticipated quarterly loss, and delay its 777X program to 2022.

Included in its business changes was a mammoth reduction in the production of its twin-engine jets, the phasing out of its 747 production, and the delay of its first 777X delivery.

Plane troubles appeared to trend

In non-COVID related news, July saw an unusual amount of incidents onboard planes, that saw flight crew raise alarms, or turn back to their point of origin. The trend was perhaps a signal of potential problems that can arise when stored aircraft are returned to service.

The first participant in the trend was a China Airlines A330, which was grounded following an incident that saw all three primary flight computers, as well as thrust reverser and autobrake systems fail.

According to official reports, Songshan’s runway number 10 was wet when the plane touched down, at which point all three primary flight computers, thrust reversers and autobrake systems failed, affecting the stopping distance of the aircraft.

The crew were forced to apply maximum manual braking, which succeeded in stopping the aircraft just 10 metres from the end of the 2,600-metre runway.

Just days later, a United Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner returned to its origin at Rome Fiumicino Airport just minutes after taking off bound for Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). 

It was the fourth turnback for the four-year-old aircraft – registered as N27958 – within the space of one week. Though Italian authorities did not provide details on the turnback, three separate aborted flights departing from Tokyo on the same aircraft were ascribed to leading-edge slat issues over a 48-hour period.

On Saturday, 11 July 2020, an Air France Boeing 777-300 was forced to turn back and make an emergency landing at its departure airport on Reunion Island after the crew reported smoke being present in the cockpit.

Flight AF-671 took off from Reunion Island’s Saint-Denis Roland Garros Airport at 9:00pm local time, en route to Paris Charles de Gaulle with 468 passengers and 22 crew on board .

The aircraft landed back at Saint-Denis on runway 14, about 4:47 hours after its initial departure. The plane then taxied to the apron.

Later, it was said that the crew reported an unusual odour and a smell of smoke within the cabin, which then found its way into the cockpit. The crew donned their oxygen masks and requested that fire services meet the plane upon arrival.

However, not all incidents reported this month were related to the plane itself, with some rather being caused by unruly passengers.

For instance, Ryanair flight FR1902 from Krakow to Dublin was forced to make an emergency landing in London, after a note alleging a bomb threat was found on board.

The note was reportedly found in one of the plane’s toilets, claiming that there were explosives onboard the aircraft.

Two UK RAF fighter jets were called in by authorities to escort the Ryanair Boeing 737 to the closest airport for landing, with the plane then landing safely at London Stansted Airport.

The Essex Police later confirmed that “nothing suspicious” was found to be onboard the aircraft. The police also stated that two men, aged 47 and 26, have now been arrested and are in police custody, on suspicion of “making threats to endanger an aircraft”.

Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines Flight 422 was turned back shortly after departing Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, after a passenger threatened to “kill everyone on board”.

The plane was still in ascent phase when the passenger became belligerent, and “physically aggressive” about 20 minutes into the flight.

Farewell 747

July also essentially saw the beginning of the end for the beloved Boeing 747.

Boeing confirmed reports that it will pull production of the iconic 747 jumbo jet after 2022.

“At a build rate of 0.5 airplanes per month, the 747-8 program has more than two years of production ahead of it in order to fulfil our current customer commitments,” a Boeing spokesman said.

“We will continue to make the right decisions to keep the production line healthy and meet customer needs.”

Around the same time, British Airways, which was, at the time, the world’s largest operator of Boeing 747 aircraft, announced it would retire all 31 of its 747s from its fleet with immediate effect, four years ahead of schedule.

The planes were initially planned to be retired by the carrier in 2024, however this date was brought forward in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent global aviation downturn.

As such, the BA 747s will be retired “with immediate effect”, and the airline anticipated its ‘queen of the skies’ will never operate a commercial service again.

Airline COVID insurance?

By the end of the month, we saw the first of what would be a number of airlines offering COVID-specific travel and health insurance, for any traveller who caught the virus whilst travelling overseas.

State-owned carrier Emirates announced that it would cover its customers’ medical and quarantine expenses, totalling up to almost $250,000, should a passenger fall ill with COVID-19 while travelling overseas.

The provided cost includes medical expenses up to around $245,000, as well as contributing $160 per day for 14 days, towards the cost of government or self-quarantine.

The move was seen as a plea by airlines to encourage passengers to travel overseas once more, following months of nearly no demand for long-haul international flights.

Demand levels remained a significant concern for the industry, and by the end of July, the IATA downgraded its travel demand recovery forecast from 2023 to 2024. 

AUGUST

August saw some development in investigations over the January downing of flight Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 shortly after take-off in Tehran by Iranian forces.

It was an incident that Tehran later called a “disastrous mistake” made by forces on high alert. Tensions between the US and Iran were high at the time, and the airliner was reportedly mistaken for an American missile. All 167 people on board were killed.

By August, the black box data from the Boeing 737 had been handed to international aviation investigation bodies, with preliminary data suggesting that “illegal interference” played a role in the downing of the plane.

Shortly after, first round talks concluded between Ukraine and Iran, with Ukrainian officials labelling the initial talks as “constructive”.

Soon after, Iran refused to pay compensation for the damages caused to the UIA plane itself, claiming the payout should come from European insurance companies.

Later in the month, analysis of black box data recovered from flight 752 found that passengers and crew survived the first of two ground-to-air missiles to hit the plane, 25 seconds apart.

While the second missile hit the aircraft 25 seconds after the first, only the first 19 seconds of this gap was recorded by the in-flight data recorders, due to damage inflicted on the equipment by the first blast.

The black box recorded the voices of passengers and crew within the aircraft following the first blast, suggesting that there were a number of survivors on board prior to the second missile hitting the airliner.

“Nineteen seconds after the first missile hit the plane, the voices of pilots inside the cockpit indicated that the passengers were alive … 25 seconds later the second missile hit the plane,” head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation Touraj Dehghani-Zanganeh told state media.

“Therefore, no analysis of the performance and effects of the second missile was obtained from the aircraft’s black box.”

A shift in diplomatic relations

Speaking of heightened tensions, in August we saw reports of China flying multiple fighter jets across the middle of the Taiwan Strait, in objection to a visit between Taiwan officials and the US health chief, Alex Azar.

China publicly promised retaliation to the exchange, which saw the highest-level US official visit the island nation in four decades, and condemned the visit as it follows a period of deteriorating relations between China and the US.

According to the Taiwanese air force, Chinese forces flew J-11 and J-10 fighter aircraft briefly onto Taiwan’s side of the narrow strait, which separates the island from its angry neighbour. It was the third time since 2016 that Taiwan reported Chinese jets crossing the strait’s median line.

On the other hand, the month also saw serious discussions over the establishment of direct air links between Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport and major Emirati cities, as the countries moved towards a “full normalisation of relations”.

In a joint statement, the UAE and Israel announced that tourism and “direct flights” will form a core part of bilateral agreements to be drafted and signed over the coming weeks and months.

Announced on Thursday by US President Donald Trump, the so-called ‘Abraham Agreement’ secured an Israeli commitment to halt further annexation of Palestinian lands in the occupied West Bank.

“Everybody said this would be impossible,” the US President told reporters at the White House. “After 49 years, Israel and the United Arab Emirates will fully normalise their diplomatic relations. They will exchange embassies and ambassadors and begin co-operation across the board and on a broad range of areas including tourism, education, healthcare, trade and security.”

COVID continues to impact aviation markets

By August, we could clearly see that markets that were capable of controlling the outbreak of COVID-19 were able to see improvements in travel demand, which brought hope to the industry.

This month, World of Aviation reported that Domestic air travel in China had almost returned to 100 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels.

The country, being the origin of the COVID-19 virus, was the first to experience the extreme toll of near total lockdowns.

However in the weeks prior, China has also seen a significant easing of cases coming from community transmission, with most new daily cases reported in China coming from residents returning from overseas.

The Chinese aviation market hit its rock bottom in February, around two months after the virus was first reported in the country, and has since been slowly rebuilding its businesses, helped mostly by the Chinese government’s ability to curb the spread of infections.

Most other markets were not experiencing such luck, however.

Ahead of the imminent end to the US Congress COVID financial aid package (CARES), labour unions and airline executives began pushing the US government to extend federal relief packages to the aviation industry, as the pandemic continues to hit the industry, and layoffs loom.

To date, the US Congress had set aside $32 billion of a $2.2 trillion CARES package for the aviation industry, on the condition that airline companies retain staff through to 30 September. 

However, as demand for air travel continues to dwindle, many in the industry fear for the worst come 1 October, unless the US government chooses to extend wage subsidies for the ailing industry.

In fact, American Airlines announced intentions to cut flights to up to 30 US cities once “strings-attached” federal funding expires, and by the end of the month, had announced it would axe 19,000 jobs by October’s end, when wage support expires.

In some effort to support travel, August saw the Trump administration lift the blanket Level 4 ‘do not travel’ advisory ban in the US, first implemented on 19 March, instead returning to ‘country specific’ bans that take into account the threat to public safety posed by each country individually.

However, unfortunately, regional carrier ExpressJet announced that it will cease operations on 30 September 2020, making it the first major US aviation casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The regional carrier had been operating under the United Airlines branding of United Express, serving regional routes across the Americas on behalf of the major carrier.

ExpressJet had been recently beaten out by CommutAir, when it went head to head with the regional airline to win United’s ongoing Embraer E-145 contract business.

Overseas, British Airways issued redundancy letters to approximately 10,700 cabin crew, engineers and airport staff, while pushing ahead with its ‘fire and rehire’ plans for existing staff.

Of the nearly 11,000 redundancies, around 6,000 were voluntary, although some older members of staff, particularly cabin crew, have told the media that they “felt forced” into taking the redundancy package.

Sadly, the first of 31 remaining British Airways Boeing 747s was sent to Spain for scrapping this month, in light of the pandemic.

In Germany, Lufthansa reached a temporary deal with the German Vereinigung Cockpit pilots union, which would delay the onset of any pilot redundancies until at least March 2021.

The deal intended to buy both parties more time to settle negotiations for the longer-term, as the airline continues to battle with the COVID-19 induced aviation downturn.

Moves made on MAX

In a new airworthiness direction dated 3 August, the US Federal Aviation Administration revealed its proposed design changes for the troubled Boeing 737 MAX.

The proposal aimed to address the issues raised by the aircraft’s manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), which appeared to be at the heart of two fatal 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019.

As such, the FAA proposed four key changes to the aircraft, after previously determining that “final corrective action is necessary to address the unsafe condition” of the aircraft.

In response, both the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and Canadian regulator Transport Canada stated they wished to perform their own independent flight testing on the MAX before making any recertification moves in their respective jurisdictions.

In August, Boeing won its first order on its troubled 737 MAX aircraft for 2020, with Polish airline Enter Air agreeing to buy up to four jets. However, the announcement sparked rumours of a potential rebrand, with the press release referring to the jet as its formal production named, “737-8” instead of ‘MAX’.

More problems for Boeing

At the end of the month, Boeing grounded eight of its 787 Dreamliners after it reportedly found “two distinct manufacturing issues” affecting the fuselage of the aircraft, the latest in a long list of troubles for the Chicago-based planemaker.

 According to Boeing, the issues were located in the joint of sections towards the rear end of the wide-body aircraft, and all affected jets “must be inspected and repaired prior to continued operation”.

At the same time, lawmakers were increasingly scrutinising the “undue influence” that Boeing appears to have over the US FAA in its recertification processes, in light of the Boeing 737 MAX fiasco.

PIA update

In the latest development of the ongoing Pakistani pilot scandal, an internal audit from within Pakistan International Airlines found the airline’s pilots to be overpaid and underworked, in light of exceptionally low productivity, and exorbitant overspending on luxurious hotels.

The report, compiled in collaboration with PIA and the Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority, stated that the productivity of the airline’s pilots was “extremely low with respect to industry standards”.

The news came as investigations continued into the validity of Pakistani pilot licences. By this point, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) revealed that it has sacked 63 of its employees following a spate of safety scandals.

Abdullah Khan, spokesman for the airline, revealed that only five of the sacked employees this month were pilots, and did not detail grounds for dismissal.

However, Khan did say that, overall, a further 28 employees were removed for fake education credentials and 27 employees were sacked for being absent from duty without notice. Two employees were fired on charges of embezzlement and one lost their position on grounds of “incompetence”.

The news comes shortly after PIA revealed plans to resume flights to three cities in England, despite a ban from operating within the UK and the European Union.

SEPTEMBER

More job cuts

With US federal wage subsidies due to dry up on 30 September, airlines responded with significant job cut announcements.

United Airlines, the second biggest airline in the US, has said it will be cutting more than 16,000 jobs in October, while Hawaii’s largest carrier, Hawaiian Airlines, announced that more than 2,000 employees will lose their job over the next month.

It comes after American Airlines announced its own cuts of 19,000 staff.

However, the decimated global demand for air travel saw airlines around the world struggle, and employees were thus in the firing line.

Virgin Atlantic has said it would cut 1,150 more jobs, despite securing a £1.2 billion (US$1.59 billion) rescue fund. This brough total job cuts across the airline to over 4,300 since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent global aviation downturn.

Singapore Airlines announced that it would cut 4,300 jobs, or around 20 per cent of its workforce, the first job cuts it has been required to make since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The airline said including temporary stand-downs, early retirements and voluntary redundancies, the potential number of staff affected by involuntary job losses would be reduced to around 2,400.

Lufthansa also inferred another round of staff cuts would be imminent, and suggested previous estimates that the airline is overstaffed by 22,000 may now be too conservative an estimate.

Lufthansa had previously hoped to limit compulsory layoffs by introducing reduced hours and pay across the board, however now it has said it will discuss with unions about the necessity of layoffs.

Within months, management positions will be cut by 20 per cent and administrative office space in Germany will be cut by 30 per cent, it said.

The losses weren’t exclusive to airlines, however.

Brazillian planemaker Embraer said it would cut 900 jobs, around 4.5 per cent of its workforce, as a result of the cancellation of its partnership with Boeing, and the ongoing COVID-19 aviation crisis.

This is in addition to the 1,600 employees who made use of the company’s various voluntary redundancy programs since the onset of the global pandemic.

Meanwhile, Airbus sent a warning letter to its 130,000 staff members that more involuntary layoffs are looming.

London Heathrow Airport informed workers unions it intends to introduce pay cuts of up to 20 per cent to about half of its 4,700-strong workforce in the engineering, air-side operations and security sectors of the company.

In a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ moment, airlines also spent September increasing their efforts to prepare for the mammoth exercise of an eventual global vaccine distribution challenge.

Airlines are already preparing for the “largest transport challenge ever” – shipping a future COVID-19 vaccine to populations all around the world – according to the IATA.

The association said that the equivalent of 8,000 Boeing 747 jumbo jets will be required to quickly transport enough future COVID-19 vaccines to cover the whole human population, once a vaccine is eventually approved for use and distribution.

Biggest non-COVID stories for September

Boy oh boy were there some good stories this month.

Two pilots reported a very unique sighting flying alongside their aircraft at about 3,000 feet on approach to Los Angeles International Airport: a man in a jet pack.

American Airlines flight 1997 from Philadelphia to LA was the first to report the unusual sighting.

“Tower, American 1997, we just passed a guy in a jet pack,” the pilot conveyed to the air traffic controllers, who seemed understandably shocked by the revelation, and asked the pilots for more information.

“American 1997… OK…. Were they off to your left side or right side?” the controller asked.

The pilot said the man was flying with a jet pack at 3,000 feet and only about 300 yards (274 metres) to the left of the plane, an Airbus A321.

Moments later, another pilot, this time from SkyWest, reported to air traffic control that he, too, had seen the flying man.

“We just saw the guy passing by us in the jet pack,” he said, to which a JetBlue pilot responded: “You don’t hear that every day – only in LA.”

Elsewhere, Airbus officially overhauled its A350 cockpit control panel, following earlier reports of engine failure caused by the aircrew’s spilt beverages.

The planemaker developed a new integrated liquid-resistant control panel within its A350 aircraft, which will protect the engine systems from damage due to accidental drink spills.

This follows two incidents in the last eight months in which A350-900s were forced to divert due to single engine shutdowns, caused by beverages being spilt on the flat centre console of the cockpit.

This month also saw a growing trend of revenue raising ‘flights to nowhere’

Singapore Airlines joined airlines such as ANA and EVA Air in launching these ‘flights to nowhere’, created to cater to customers who are missing the flying experience.

Singapore Airlines launched its own scenic three-hour domestic ‘flights to nowhere’, in an attempt to boost revenue.

The flights could be sold as a package deal in conjunction with ‘staycation’ hotel rooms, shopping vouchers for spending at the Jewel Changi Airport, and limousine service to ferry customers around Singapore, to enhance the ‘travel’ experience for customers.

With a similar intention, SIA also announced plans to rejig one of its currently grounded jumbo jets into a pop-up restaurant, with meals designed by international chefs.

Chinese fighter jets were again sent to the straight between its territory and that of Taiwan, during another meeting with US officials on Taiwanese soil.

Meanwhile, an input error on PlaneSpotters.net sparked rumours that Russia’s Rossiya Airlines had purchased seven ex-British Airways Boeing 747 aircraft. Unfortunately, British Airways denied that it had sold its 747 aircraft to Rossiya, and the error was fixed shortly thereafter.

In much sadder news, on 25 September, a military Antonov An-26 carrying air force cadets crashed in Ukraine’s north-east killing 26 of the 27 people on board.

The aircraft reportedly crashed near a highway, around two kilometres from the Chuguev military airbase, while attempting to land during a training exercise. The plane burst into flames shortly after the crash.

Miraculously, one individual, 20-year old cadet Vyacheslav Zolochevsky, survived the crash.

MAX update

It was again, another troublesome month for Boeing.

On the up-side, the US planemaker saw tentative approval of its safety design changes in Europe, following the official green-light in the US.

It was also said that the US FAA was looking to recertify the aircraft and lift the 20-month grounding order by November.

FAA chief Steve Dickson began gearing up for his own personal safety check flight on the aircraft, before he would give his personal tick of approval to the aircraft.

However, scrutiny over Boeing and the FAA’s relationship continued before the US House transportation and infrastructure committee, which stated the two fatal 737 MAX crashes “never should have happened” and “could have been prevented”.

The House said the incidents “were not the result of a singular failure, technical mistake, or mismanaged event”, but rather the “horrific culmination” of engineering flaws, mismanagement and a severe lack of industry and federal oversight.

“Boeing failed in its design and development of the MAX, and the FAA failed in its oversight of Boeing and its certification of the aircraft,” the report said.

Simultaneously, the families of the Boeing 737 MAX crash victims sent a letter lobbying US lawmakers to ensure Boeing is held accountable for the accidents that killed a total of 346 people.

The US planemaker was facing around 100 lawsuits from families of 157 victims of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crash that occurred in March 2019, the second fatal crash caused by the aircraft’s operating software.

Further, just one day after the announcement of an FAA probe into the 787 Dreamliner, Boeing’s woes unfortunately continued, as the planemaker announced another new fault found in its aircraft.

Boeing has revealed a fault in its Dreamliner’s horizontal stabiliser, apparently only on its planes that are yet to be delivered.

It appears that some components of the stabiliser were clamped with “greater force” than necessary during the fabrication process, which could ultimately lead to “improper gap verification and shimming”.

This fault was reportedly found in February, however has only now been announced to the public.

Boeing said the issue was not an immediate flight safety issue.

This was the third fault in the 787 Dreamliner revealed in as many weeks, adding to Boeing’s financial strain amid the COVID-19 downturn, and its ongoing recertification battle over its troubled 737 MAX.

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