The Future of Ultra-Long-Haul, the Boeing 737 MAX Program and More Takeaways from IATA’s Annual Gathering

Jun 5, 2019

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In Seoul this week, airline leaders and stakeholders of the aviation industry gathered for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) annual general meeting. The gathering is an opportunity to release new data surrounding air travel, specifically with growth forecasts, identifying any turbulence the industry may face ahead and pin-pointing how an everyday passenger could be affected by ongoing global circumstances.

Some hot topics dominated the discussion in Seoul, including the ongoing grounding of the 737 MAX and the emergence of a new threat to passenger growth, known as ‘flight shaming’.

Boeing 737 MAX

It’s safe to say the 737 MAX was all people wanted to talk about. We’re now into the third month of the grounding of the jet. Week after week, new developments have been thrown into the spotlight, highlighting how Boeing could have known about potential issues surrounding its new software features.

IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac opened the forum by stating: “The recent Boeing 737 MAX accidents have put our reputation in the spotlight. Trust in the certification system has been damaged — among regulators, between regulators and the industry and with the flying public.”

A Boeing 737 MAX 8 for China Southern Airlines, foreground, is pictured at the Boeing Renton Factory in Renton, Washington on March 12, 2019. - The US said there is "no basis" to ground Boeing 737 MAX airplanes, after a second deadly crash involving the model in less than five months prompted governments worldwide to ban the aircraft. "Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft," Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Daniel Elwell said in a statement. (Photo by Jason Redmond / AFP) (Photo credit should read JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jason Redmond / AFP/Getty Images)

There was a range of different opinions from airline CEOs on the prospect of when the jet will return to the skies. Emirates President Tim Clark told media he believed the 737 MAX will not fly again until after Christmas. While Emirates’ sister airline FlyDubai is one of the largest 737 MAX operators, Clark believes there will be much delay from regulators in Europe, China and Canada, which are likely to keep the jet grounded for longer than the US.

I spoke with Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam, who told me: “We will be the last to fly the 737 MAX”.

Ultra-Long-Haul  

Qantas’ ‘Project Sunrise’ is ultimately a battle between Airbus and Boeing as to who will supply the Australian flag carrier with a jet capable of flying between Sydney and London nonstop. At IATA, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce confirmed both manufacturers have until August to present their “best and final offer” for aircraft capable of flying the 21-hour nonstop route. Joyce confirmed that an order will be made this year and that deliveries would likely commence late-2022. The two aircraft Qantas is assessing: a new variant of the Airbus A350-1000, or Boeing 777X — both capable in terms of range.

Photo courtesy of Boeing.
Photo courtesy of Boeing.

Qantas will design the cabins to feature four classes, including first, business, premium economy and economy class. There will also be a dedicated zone for economy and premium economy-class passengers to stretch out and hydrate.

Jet Fuel

Fluctuations in oil prices have wiped off of profits at even the most financially stable airlines. Last year, the cost of jet fuel peaked at $96 per barrel in October 2018. In November and December, however, it turned sharply down. While it’s currently lower than what we’ve witnessed in recent months, it means the price of jet fuel has subsequently begun to rise again, and so airlines generally remain cautious on celebrating the lower cost of oil at this point — but not all. Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) has reduced fuel surcharge on tickets in response to the falling oil price, making it currently cheaper to fly ANA on average over other Japanese airlines.

Flight Shaming

The global concern about carbon emissions has been rising, and in the past six months, the ‘Flying Shame’ movement has attracted a lot of attention. And it has industry leaders wondering if this could be a threat to passenger traffic over the coming years. Some politicians, activists and environmentalists are calling for a ban on domestic flights within countries such as Germany, whereby existing modes of transport such as high-speed rail already connect cities. De Juniac urged airlines to do more to communicate the steps the industry is taking to tackle the environmental impact on flying, including by making it easier to carbon offset or switching to sustainable alternative jet fuels.

Turbulence

For an aircraft, turbulence isn’t unsafe — it’s just uncomfortable for passengers. But IATA data shows injuries directly related to inflight turbulence are climbing and linked with climate change. The uptick has made all the more clear how important it is to keep your seatbelt fastened throughout the entire flight — even when forecasts predict clear weather.

The Future Is Single Aisle

Last week’s column focused on assessing the potential role single-aisle jets will play in the industry over the coming years, and at IATA’s AGM it was clear that single-aisle jets remain at the heart of many carriers’ business plans — for both short- and long-haul operations. Airbus’ Chief Commercial Officer Christian Scherer highlighted how we’re likely to see a new, longer-range variant of the (already long-range) A321LR flying by 2024.

Aviation industry stakeholders also reconfirmed the need to work together in more a more proactive manner, but the priority was clear: safety. While the industry continues to face many challenges — some expected and some extraordinary — the clear message from the annual general meeting was the need to ensure each stakeholder in the industry is doing its utmost in regards to ensuring the safe continuation of air travel.

Featured photo by K.C. Alfred/Getty Images.

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