Editor’s Comment: I’m stuck in the middle with you

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Airlines are in a state of confusion as to whether they should block the middle seat. Some airlines have totally committed themselves to the new configuration to bring social distancing to the cabin, while others have made half-hearted attempts. An indication of what airline CEOs are having to juggle with is demonstrated by the current problem carriers are facing in the United States. American Airlines is joining United by easing social distancing guidelines ahead of the Independence Day (4 July) holiday weekend. From mid-week, flights can operate at full capacity.

It’s a dilemma that also has to be practical. No airline can operate its aircraft when they are just 60% full, for any long duration of time. Many airlines are prepared to resume flying but have capped bookings at between 60% and 70%.

In contrast to American Airlines and United, Delta and Southwest Airlines have pledged to keep the middle seat free until at least 31 September, and JetBlue is following suit until the end of the month.

It’s going to be an interesting exercise for these carriers, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the United States.

In Europe, LCC and regionals continue to state that social distancing will not work onboard aircraft, but they have introduced all the practical measures they can to get back into the air, such as leaving the middle row free.

IATA estimates airlines have to hit 87% of filled capacity for a flight to break even and blocking the middle seat prevents flights from getting close to this target. Flights across Europe are slowly resuming following tough negotiations to establish air bridges that will enable passengers to avoid two weeks of self-quarantine when returning home. The demand for seats on aircraft has reached a fever pitch, with people eager to enjoy some semblance of a summer holiday. With the need to reclaim lost revenue and passengers queuing up to fly, just how long will the vacant middle seat ruling stay in place?

Editor’s Comment: Plans, patience and PPE

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It might be an issue for more airlines in the future, but Qantas is the first to find itself in a rather unusual dilemma. The airline is keen to avoid involuntary layoffs of aircrew, and, by the end of the month, is trying to come up with a plan to avoid such action.

This was announced to Qantas’ pilots directly on 22 June, according to Reuters. If the airline sacked its flight crews in the coming months, it would be a “failure”, stated the CEO of Qantas International, Tino La Spina.

But La Spina stressed that there must be flexibility within the workforce, including early retirements, voluntary layoffs, and a possible pilots’ salary reduction for the Australian operator to avoid flight crew redundancies over the next few months.

Following the announcement by the Australian government, that it may not reopen the country’s borders until 2021, Qantas confirmed that it had cancelled all of its international flights through until late October. The sole exception will be flights to New Zealand since the two nations plan to establish an air bridge over the Tasman Sea.

But in an ironic twist, Australia’s regional flights have never been so popular as Qantas and its low-cost subsidiary, Jetstar, have launched a substantial seat sale campaign. The LCC set new records, according to a press release, while bookings for Qantas’ regional flights have doubled in number.

Part of this rise can also be blamed on the collapse of Virgin Australia earlier in the year, but I wonder if we’re going to see a similar pattern across Europe.

Europe’s regional and LCCs are slowly getting back into the air albeit with a deluge of conflicting cleaning instructions. They are also having to contend with the need to ensuring social distancing measures are adhered to and that passengers wear their masks appropriately during a flight.

Every airline CEO is keeping a wary eye on what everyone else is doing and how they are coping. We’re only in the early stages of getting back to normal, but it’s clear that these new actions will become routine and familiar to anyone who has to fly for work.

While we may find things slightly inconvenient, spare a thought for the air and cabin crews who’ve had to practice and maintain these new procedures on a daily basis while worrying if they’d have a career to return to. A bit of patience will keep us all safe when we fly for work or pleasure over the next few months.

New virtual airline for Lithuania?

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The Lithuanian Ministry of Transport and Communications has revealed that the nation plans to establish its own national flag carrier airline by the end of 2020.

One option being examined is a virtual airline. Whereby the airline has its own brand, but owns no aircraft. Instead the carrier would purchase flight hours and services from other airlines.

But, the ministry stated that these options are only at a very early stage, and all plans are being explored.

By running its own airline, it would make Lithuania independent of foreign air carriers and their constantly changing strategies which is having a major impact on the nation’s developing tourist industry.

Qantas suspends all international flights as Australia closes

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According to ainonline.com, Qantas has cancelled all international flights until late October in response to a statement from the Australian government indicating that it may not reopen the country’s borders until 2021. On 18 June the airline said it will operate services to New Zealand, since the two countries have established an air bridge to permit cross-border travel, and will gradually increase domestic flights in the coming weeks to reach 15% of pre-COVID-19 levels.

Earlier on 18 June, Australia’s tourism minister Simon Birmingham told the media that the government intends to maintain the ban on all but very limited permitted visits to the country in order to maintain the progress it’s made in stopping the spread of the virus.

“Should travel between Australia and other countries open up and demand returns, we can add more flights back into our schedule,” said a Qantas spokesperson in a written statement.

However, Qantas and its Jetstar subsidiary doubled the number of passengers carried on domestic flights from 64,000 to from 32,000 last week. The airline has indicated that it may be able to increase to 40% of pre-COVID levels during July if domestic demand continues its upward trend.

EasyJet defers Airbus order until 2025

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EasyJet has announced that it reached an agreement with Airbus on the deferral of 24 aircraft deliveries to 2025-2027.

As an attempt to save its core business structure, the LCC stated that it intends to focus on a smaller market, so is pushing the aircraft delivery to a later time. The carrier expects the crisis to end no sooner than 2023, thus, drastic measures are inevitable.

In May the company had to lay-off 4,500 employees. EasyJet was pushed by its founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou to annul the order, but other shareholders managed to agree on pushing deliveries for the later time.

“The changes agreed defer capacity in the medium term while continuing out long-term strategy of replacing out older fleet with advanced and lower fuel burning A320neo family,” stated Johan Lundgren, easyJet CEO.

On 15 June the budget carrier resumed operations, although with a much reduced staff and schedule. By August easyJet expects to resume flying to almost three quarters of its route network.

Editor’s Comment: So, how are we going to do this?

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As supermarkets, shops and other businesses slowly begin to reopen under a host of new social distancing guidelines following the relaxation of COVID-19 policies, regional airlines and LCCs across the US and Europe are also now facing with a similar fine balancing act. Without the luxury of space or more than one aisle for customers to wander about in a carefully choreographed clockwise direction, LCCs and regional airlines are having to balance social distancing while still trying to generate a profit and maintain a workable cabin.

As airlines struggled to cope with the dramatic fall in passenger demand for flights earlier in the year, crews were furloughed, and aircraft grounded. Now, weeks after the peak of the crisis has passed, airlines in the US are having to cobble together their own rules from guidelines issued by the various states, which were described as ‘patchy’ at best.

In recent days, a succession of images posted by passengers on their Twitter accounts showing aircraft cabins completely full, with very little opportunity for social distancing, have caused much comment on social media channels.

The operators have responded to these images, with American Airlines stating that: “Our goal is to leave 50% of the main cabin middle seats open, when possible, creating more space for customers.”

Similarly, in response to the numerous social media posts, Delta Air Lines published a statement saying it would extend its social distancing measures on all flights until at least the end of September. The airline intends to block the middle seats and cap the number of passengers allowed per cabin.

For many people concerned by the images, Delta’s approach is seen as a welcome gesture,  but perhaps these measures were best summed up by Scott Kirby, United Airlines’ CEO, who according to aviation website The Points Guy stated: “You can’t be six feet apart on an airplane, middle seat or not.”

In what is becoming an all too familiar response, the airline replied by saying it will notify passengers if their flight is more than 70% full and allow them to rebook or receive a credit.

As the US struggles to achieve a workable standardised plan, Europe’s carriers, although now back in the air, or preparing to do so imminently, are facing similar dilemmas.

Perhaps rather than simply trying to create extra space in the cabin, when for all purposes there isn’t any extra room, the best policy would be to check passengers for signs of illness with the thermal technology, that has already been developed for the crisis, prior to boarding in the terminal, when at least the two-metre rule can be achieved. A few minutes delay boarding, might well avoid confusion and conflict once safely seated, no matter where the destination.

Wizz Air welcomes first A320neo to its fleet

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Wizz Air has taken a delivery of its first new Airbus A320neo aircraft under the HA-LJA registration.

This is the airline’s 122 aircraft in the operator’s all-Airbus fleet. The Airbus A320neo, the first of its type in the Wizz fleet, incorporates the latest technologies in aviation and offers significant environmental benefits, with nearly a 50% reduction in noise footprint, a 20% reduction in fuel consumption and a nearly 50% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions compared to previous generation aircraft. By accepting this next aircraft equipped with ultra-modern and efficient Pratt & Whitney GTF engines, Wizz strengthens its position as one of the world’s greenest airlines.

József Váradi, Chief Executive Officer of Wizz Air said: “We are delighted to add another ultra- modern aircraft type to our ever-growing fleet. This new aircraft is a true symbol of our ULCC business model by delivering significant cost advantages as well as further lowering Wizz Air’s emissions. Our state-of-the-art fleet, now including the first Airbus A320neo aircraft, as well as our enhanced protective measures will ensure the best possible sanitary conditions for travellers. Wizz Air is the lowest cost producer in Europe operating the youngest and economically most efficient fleet of aircraft with the lowest environmental footprint.”

First Airbus A220 produced in Mobile takes to the air

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The first Airbus A220 aircraft produced at the US final assembly line Mobile, Alabama completed its maiden flight from the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley on 2 June. The A220-300 will be delivered to Delta Airlines. According to Airbus the aircraft completed all its test sequences successfully.

The A220’s primary production facility and program headquarters are in Mirabel, Canada. The very first A220 destined to Delta was produced in Canada. The latest one is the very first A220 assembled in the US. Delta is due to recieve a total of 45 of A220-100 and 50 A220-300 aircraft.

Ravn Air’s bankruptcy impacts Alaska’s remote communities

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According to simplyflying.com in a message dated 27 May and posted to its official website, Ravn Air announced that the US Bankruptcy Court had approved the airline’s liquidation of assets. The regional Alaskan carrier filed for Chapter 11 protection on 5 April, following a 90% drop in bookings and revenue due to the arrival of COVID-19. But, the company and its services were critical for many remote communities in Alaska.

According to local news reports, Alaskan residents of some remote arctic villages are unable to receive their supplies as a result of Ravn Air’s shutdown. This was the case for Atqasuk resident and tribal-coordinator Millie Frankson, who had a Can$535 order that was supposed to be flown in.

Instead, Frankson had to drive two hours on a makeshift road across the ice to reach the city of Utqiagvik, where her purchase was stored. Commenting on the fact that this is not always possible, Frankson said, “I was lucky enough that the ice road was still open,” adding “[Ravn’s closure] was just a big shock to the whole North Slope Borough. Like, how are we gonna get our food, our mail, our medical needs?”

Ravn Air was only given a few hours notice before it had to shut down its operations on 4 April, with caught many residents unawares. With the airline grounded, more than 115 Alaskan communities have had to make other arrangements in order to receive supplies. 570 News reports that nearly all the communities are accessible only by plane or boat as 82% lack road connections, according to the state’s transportation agency. Furthermore, for about 20 villages, Ravn Air was their sole air service provider.

A message on the airline’s website stated that is a buyer for the operator could be found, then services would resume, but with the filling of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy this is now unlikely.

The latest update on the Ravn Air Group’s wesbite states that it has been conditionally approved by the US Treasury to move forward and seek payroll grants under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) Payroll Support Program. This assistance will help pave the way for buyers who are seeking to purchase the entire Air Group, maximise creditor recoveries, and enable a successful exit from Chapter 11 that will preserve Alaska’s largest and most vital regional air carrier and the many jobs and essential air service it provides.

INFORM GmbH’s GroundStar optimisation software chosen by IndiGo

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INFORM GmbH (INFORM), a leading global provider of advanced optimisation software for the aviation industry, announced that it has entered into an agreement with InterGlobe Aviation Limited (IndiGo), a LCC airline operating out of India. It will provide its comprehensive optimisation software suite, GroundStar (GS) to IndiGo, to enhance the airline’s workforce management processes. With a fleet of over 250 aircraft, IndiGo is India’s largest passenger airline and holds approximately 47.5% of the market share in the country.

Specifically, IndiGo will be using INFORM’s GS Planning, GS WorkforcePlus and GS RealTime modules, which provide a strong value proposition by supporting aviation companies to optimally plan, schedule and allocate its manpower and equipment resources.

“We are excited to work with one of the most dynamic airlines in the world,” says Altay Fellah, INFORM, Director Business Development Aviation. “Our ability to provide real-time agility to workforce and equipment scheduling challenges makes us a perfect match for IndiGo’s fast-growing operations. INFORM is a perfect partner for low-cost carriers that want to stay lean while they grow, yet still deliver superior on-time performance and customer service. Many low-cost airlines perceive us as a supplier to mainly large flag carriers. I believe our partnership with IndiGo will change this perception. Our system provides value to carriers and service provider of all sizes,” Fellah adds.

Once the solution is operational across all stations, IndiGo will begin deriving benefits from the enhanced planning capabilities GroundStar provides in terms of automation, improved operational visibility, enhanced service quality and customer satisfaction.