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Purser: Weird and wonderful

The aviation industry is going through a time of death, near-death, and other bizarre experiences.


June 9, 2008
By Richard Purser

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The goings-on in the world aviation industry are often such that one wishes Gilbert and Sullivan had lived into the air age and were able to pay appropriate theatrical tribute to it – perhaps Hindenburg: The Musical or The Pirates of AirCan  about the destruction of Canadian Airlines International, or Heathrow Follies about more recent shenanigans.

So much has been going on lately in the industry that it has gone almost beyond satire.

Look at the array of recent airline failures: U.S. carriers Maxjet Airways, Aloha Airlines, ATA Airlines and Skybus shut down on Christmas Eve, March 31, April 3 and April 4 respectively. Hong Kong’s Oasis Airlines, which flew to Vancouver, followed suit on April 9. Several other small airlines are threatened, and then there’s the more noteworthy matter of Italy’s basket-case national airline Alitalia, which was a political football even before Air France-KLM – itself an odd combination – walked away from its bid for the carrier. It has become even more of one since, especially with the election once again of the ever-erratic Silvio Berlusconi to become prime minister of Italy.

And it will be some time before British Airways lives down the fiasco of the March 27 opening of its costly Terminal 5 at London Heathrow. The terminal was evidently opened with a minimum of advance preparation. BA’s CEO, Willie Walsh, said he took full responsibility for the mess. Did he resign? Perish the thought! But a couple of underlings found themselves out of a job. (I use this circumlocution because no one will say whether they resigned or were fired.)

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Airline merger mania was rife in the U.S.; Delta and Northwest finally decided in mid-April to merge and form the world’s largest airline (under the Delta name). The deal had been off the rails for some time because the managements were unable to bring the pilots’ unions on board. This is still the case, but the airlines went ahead anyway, adding one really big problem to the problems already inherent in such a colossal merger.

The Delta-Northwest decision set off talk of other large U.S. airlines seeking competitive mergers, with United especially setting its sights on Continental. Continental said it would prefer to stay independent for now. This set off further talk of United going after US Airways, which would be interesting because US Airways is still having trouble digesting the former America West Airlines.

We’re probably spared this sort of concern in Canada – it’s not easy to conceive of Air Canada and WestJet merging! Still, Air Canada is not averse to picking away at less powerful airlines, like Porter. Robert Milton’s approach to YTZ-based Porter is reminiscent of his predessor Hollis Harris’s stiletto-in-both-hands approach to Canadian a decade and a half or so ago.

Then there were the regulatory antics in the U.S., starting with the Federal Aviation Administration’s penalizing on March 6 of Southwest Airlines, the low-cost icon and corporate mentor of WestJet. This was for alleged maintenance faults, flying older B737s without required structural inspections. Southwest briefly grounded a number of planes to catch up with the inspections; but that was nothing compared to what happened in early April when the FAA jumped on today’s industry giant, American Airlines, over inspections of its MD-80 aircraft. A series of flight cancellations culminated on April 9 when American dropped more than 1,000 flights, nearly half of its schedule, for aircraft inspections.

The result was chaos for tens of thousands of passengers and the loss of tens of millions of dollars for the airline. Parent AMR Corp. had already lost $328 million U.S. in the first quarter, compared with a profit of $81 million U.S. in the same 2007 period.

All this set off an ardent discussion, sometimes enlightening and sometimes not, about the relationships between the FAA and the airlines it regulates.

And let’s not get into Boeing and the tribulations of its vaunted 787 Dreamliner, or its fight with the U.S. military over the contract (which it lost) for air refuellers; or the government of Missouri scrambling to entice Bombardier to build its projected C-series there. Or Air Canada getting into the news over the carriage of pets and charging for second pieces of checked luggage.

Re the Dreamliner and its innovative technology: A leading business publication recently described it as “the first jetliner with a carbon-fibre composite (read: plastic) frame.” This is supposed to encourage the consumer?

There is just so damn much going on!

Richard Purser is the senior associate editor of Wings.


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