Aircraft survive the darndest things

There is little doubt aircraft are designed to survive the inconceivable, see the QF32 A380 incident and the DHL A300 at Baghdad, and an accident that has emerged from Syria reinforces that.

This Syrian Arab Airlines A320 was operating from Damascus to Latakia, when a military helicopter clipped and sheered off the upper half of the vertical stabiliser at 12,000ft. How and why the military helicopter was so close is unclear. The vertical stabiliser provides aircraft with directional yaw stability through the longitudinal axis, without which the aircraft would enter an unrecoverable spin.

The damaged Syrian Arab Airlines Airbus A320 YK-AKF. Image: AvHerald.

It is a great credit to the crew that the aircraft returned safely to Damascus, with no injuries on board. The incorporation of split two piece rudders into aircraft design another factor which perhaps allowed the crew enough control to land safely. The military helicopter was reported crashed with no survivors.

AvHerald reports the incident as taking place around one week ago, and as yet no details have emerged over the impact or the control issues the pilots experienced. Considering the murky political situation in Syria at the moment, it may be likely we never know the full circumstances.



Airbus’ future of flight

For an industry so focused on innovation and efficiency, commercial aviation is seemingly on an eternally long, straight taxiway to deliver the next great fuel saving. Important in an industry facing extreme operational pressures, but what comes next?

Airbus’ 2050 Concept Aircraft and Smart Skies are more than just a funky conceptualisation, Airbus sees them as a way to spark debate and discussion among all industry stakeholders. And more importantly engage the aviators of tomorrow.

Speaking at last week’s Airbus’ Charles Champion, Royal Aeronautical Society’s Charles Kingsford Smith dinner, Executive Vice President of Engineering was at pains to reinforce the mentality of thinking about programmes now and for the next ten years must change. In looking at future concepts, Airbus has identified a whole gamut of issues to substantially improve efficiency and also engage minds to make the concepts a reality.

If a good representation of Airbus’ leadership, Champion seemed pretty genuine about the need to engage the younger generation that will take over the industry; explaining Airbus’ practical steps to encourage the transition. The Concept Aircraft and Safer Skies team consists of around 30 young engineers, who work with a minimal budget and have given their time for free outside usual Airbus work commitments, to develop a creative yet convincing case for future air travel.

Airbus sees a move toward smaller sustainable airports, energy neutral airports, powered by wind farms and algae. Image: Airbus S.A.S

Champion says future aircraft design could be compromised by a lack of knowledge of judgement. As an ever larger number or engineers retires, there is a decreasing number of young engineers with various levels of training to replace them, creating a gap in the knowledge that is passed on. The result? Younger aircraft engineers lack the capacity to judge the validity and application of their designs. To overcome this Champion says “our engineers are continuously encouraged to think widely and come up with ‘disruptive’ idea”.

The world also faces a shortage of pilots. The situation is dire, and to be honest, endless forums on how to encourage the next generation to jump in the cockpit, without actually engaging us directly, aren’t working. Compounding this issue, Champion pertinently argued that dealing with pilots of all standards is likely to become a disruptive issue, with the increasing number of multiple crew licenses and regulatory approvals for training only working to increase complexity further.

Airbus’ assisted takeoff would run on an electromagnetic track system. Allowing for smaller engines, lower aircraft weight, and the ability to use continuous climb power setting. Image: Airbus S.A.S

This is where Airbus has taken itself to the fore. “We have to ask if there are entirely new ways of doing things, and we have to have the conversation with the airports, the government authorities, those concerned with the development of better air traffic arrangements, as well as the airlines” says Champion. Airbus is not just tooting its own horn, it is pushing the industry to engage in a contextual discussion involving multiple stakeholders.

Airbus’ future concept is not solely focused on operator cost and the flight experience, but synthesising the entire operating environment. Champion argues that this will be the only way to meet the stringent targets the industry has set for itself.

Creativity is the key. The Concept Aircraft is only an idea. But, any future Airbus aircraft will be strongly influenced by combination of airframe and engines in a way that has not been explored today, Champion made it clear that Airbus would draw from some, but not all of the elements. He explored the particular idea of formation flight having the capability to reduce separation to 1nm. Airbus research indicates “in a V formation of 25 birds, each can achieve a reduction of induced drag by up to 65 per cent and increase their range by 7 per cent”. This alone equates to 10-12% for three aircraft in formation.

Airbus’ Concept Aircraft in formation flight. Image: Airbus S.A.S

2050. Will we see today’s rife competition or a few giant airline groups? Who hopes to float around in airships again? Will we have truly ‘Open Skies’ to fly anywhere at anytime? Radical ideas, but given the environmental sceptics fighting sustainable change, and aviation foe finding new ways to restrict this vital industry on a daily basis, it’s important for aviation that the future begin today.

More on Future by Airbus here.

While distracted by partnerships, Qantas sneakily changes their traffic stat reports.

Turning away from the giddy heights of Qantas’ new global focus for just a few moments, and back home it seems Qantas’ is a bit sore.

Qantas has been publishing monthly yield and traffic statistics for all Group business since 2000. However, yesterday while everyone was distracted by Qantas-Emirates announcement speculation, the airline released its July traffic statistics, and for the first time published only qualitative, not quantitative yield data.

Why is this important? Yield is the amount of profit an airline makes per passenger after all costs have been attributed for.

Australian Domestic yields (comprising Qantas Domestic, QantasLink and Jetstar Domestic) were lower than the prior period (July ’11), and Qantas mainline Domestic passenger numbers were also down 2.6% with seat factor down 4.3% to 77.7%. A fare war looms large as all four domestic Australian carriers increase capacity in the market, and as competition between Qantas and a ‘game on’ Virgin Australia escalates both carriers profitability will suffer.

Qantas says “going forward, yield commentary in the monthly traffic statistics will be qualitative in line with international and domestic peers”, the airline is playing coy. Competition in the Australian domestic market has not been this intense since prior to the collapse of Ansett.

“A momentous day in aviation”

This is the label Tim Clark gave to today’s announcement of the partnership between Qantas and Emirates. For Emirates, it is merely an endorsement that its strategy and positioning has worked. For Qantas, the agreement represents a considerable strategic shift, forcing the airline to finally acknowledge many of the operational issues that should have been acknowledged up to a decade ago.

From 1 April 2013, Qantas’ services to London will operate ‘The Falcon Route’ via Dubai. Subject to regulatory approval, the centerpiece of this strategic is an 10 year operational partnership with Emirates Airlines which includes integrated network collaboration with coordinated pricing, sales and scheduling as well as a benefit-sharing model. Akin to having fully metal-neutral Anti-Trust Immunity, the agreement also provides scope for further expansion, Alan Joyce saying “the two airlines can do a lot more together into the future.”

The partnership “representing a step-change for the aviation industry” while true, is ironic. Qantas has essentially endorsed Emirates strategy and positioning, something it has vehemently fought against and accused of everything from receiving subsidies to capacity dumping for years. Even after the Qantas rhetoric, will passengers buy this sudden strategic shift? Perhaps.

Why? Sure, it doesn’t deliver Qantas operated services to passengers outside Melbourne or Sydney. What it does represents a fundamental change in airline thinking, that Qantas recognises the importance of the mature and continuously developing expectations passengers have of airline alliances. It recognises that passengers will fly if the alliance can take you where you want to go, with the benefits you deserve with full reciprocity. Something which has become murky in the wider world of airline alliances.

The alliance is risk averse, it allows Qantas to minimise its exposure to the European market and the trans-Tasman market, where Emirates with its much lower margins and cost structure is more competitive. The association with a brand considered to be one of the world’s best, will also dramatically enhance Qantas’ international exposure.

“It’s not you, it’s me”. On 31 March 2013 Qantas will end the 17-year Joint Services Agreement with British Airways, the breakup an indication that in today’s operational environment the alliance wasn’t delivering from an operational, passenger experience or yield perspective. Qantas will also cease to fly the Kangaroo Route to Europe, just over 65 years after the airline first started flying the route on 1 December 1947. Services to Frankfurt will also be suspended, a route that has long not been profitable because of high jetfuel prices, the Boeing 747-400s full burn and high-aircraft weight.

The following slide from the Qantas presentation gives an idea of the significant markets the Qantas-Emirates partnership will open up:

“Qantas alone can’t take pax everywhere – but together Qantas & Emirates can take Australians just about anywhere. With style.” Alan Joyce, Qantas Airways CEO

The partnership doesn’t extend across Asia, with QF/EK connections only available to Emirates services through Singapore and Bangkok. In addition, Qantas codeshare services with Cathay Pacific and Air France to Rome and Paris respectively will also be cancelled. Changes have also failed to address Qantas’ neglected international markets from Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane.

Perhaps more important than the partnership, is Qantas acknowledgement that its Asian services need to be transformed. For many years Qantas has neglected the region home to our biggest trading partners and inbound tourism markets. Services to the region will be enhanced, with new flights and changes to schedules in recognition of a need to be more business friendly. Will Qantas actually receive a portion of the 15 Boeing 787-8s it subsequently directed to Jetstar in support of this? Time will tell.

Back in 1996, Qantas entered into a partnership with an emerging carrier, Emirates. When it ended, no one noticed. How things change in 15 years. Now the world is watching, and it seems everyone else, especially John Borghetti, was right.

The Qantas-Emirates partnership website can be found here. And, Qantas’ full statement here.

Is Emirates or Etihad one step closer to the Pacific?

Will a unified Qantas and Emirates partner with Air Pacific or will Etihad and Virgin Australia move in?

The ambitions of Emirates and Etihad were given a boost this week, with Fiji and the UAE signing their first bilateral air service agreement. Apparently, Emirates had requested an open skies agreement, but the Fijian government declined reasoning that they want the national carrier Air Pacific/Fiji Airways to first become ‘stronger’.

The Fijian government is seeking an ‘airline’ partnership, though what form this will take is still unclear. The new Fijian ambassador to the UAE, Mr Robin Nair confirming “we have spoken with Emirates and are also in talks with Etihad, they are very close to circumnavigating the globe”.

Mr Nair also noted “Fiji needs more airlines to bring tourists and business people, especially from newer markets, such as from the Middle East and Europe.”

Would it be viable? Perhaps, but geographic and economic factors often stymie carriers in there attempts to viably serve the South Pacific Island Countries.

A significant proportion of international traffic to Fiji already transfers through Australia, and the market is also substantially tourism based with little high-yield business traffic. During Virgin Australia’s transformation the carrier’s Boeing 777 services to Fiji were cut, John Borghetti reasoning “to be operating a three class widebody (B777) service to leisure markets like Fiji has to be a no-no”.

The South Pacific suffers from separation anxiety. A long way most of the world, at 14,000km a direct Abu Dhabi (AUH)/Dubai (DXB) – Nadi (NAN) service pushes the economical range limits of any aircraft except the Airbus A340-500 or 777-200LR. In addition, Emirates Chairman Tim Clark maintains it won’t operate to a location unless it can operate daily services.

But would there be enough traffic to sustain daily services? Tellingly, Air Pacific only operates to Auckland, Brisbane, and Sydney at a frequency of daily or higher. Even with the power of Emirates and Etihad’s back-end network feed, it may be difficult to fill an A340 or B777-200LR daily,  let alone a 400-seat Boeing 777-300ER.

Emirates serve the largely tourist markets using 2-class 278 seat A330s operating direct from Dubai to Cairns,
piggybacking to Nadi, or to Nadi via Singapore. Image: Peter Russel

Emirates will inevitably operate to Cairns, and could piggyback NAN services through the city. Its current second daily Brisbane service operating DXB – Singapore (SIN) – Brisbane (BNE) could have a Nadi leg added on. Alternatively, services could bypass Australia altogether, operating via SIN to collect connecting intra-Asian traffic feed.

Air Pacific will rebrand as Fiji Airways in 2013 with new Airbus A330s replacing its three Boeing 747-400s.

In reality how would a Fijian Government ‘airline partnership’ take? Rumour is Emirates is close to announcing a comprehensive partnership with Qantas (perhaps even this week), but although Qantas and Air Pacific continue to code share, the carriers are no longer friends following a bitter political dispute over board executive influence. This may make a code share arrangement with a relaunched Fiji Airways difficult.

Etihad and Virgin Australia could also prove suitable suitors. Rather than operate its own aircraft to Fiji, Etihad could leverage its partnership with Virgin Australia with passengers connecting to Virgin services in Brisbane or Sydney. A relationship with Virgin could also be a boon for Fiji Airways. Coordination of services and traffic feed providing the relaunched carrier with better returns, and free aircraft to launch services to destinations outside the region. Perhaps even allowing Fiji Airways to return to Singapore, with services passengers connecting to onward Etihad services.

Will a middle eastern carrier serve the South Pacific? Definitely. It’s now just a matter of how and when than if.

Australia-EU ETS link should deliver savings to Australia’s aviation industry.

The ETS link induced reduction in carbon price to $10 mt should reduce the impact on REX’s operating costs by close to $1.5 million. REX’s current CO2 output is approx. 115,000 mt p.a.

The air transport industry, so governments are convinced, is slowly destroying the environment. Unfortunately, aeroplanes are also big, leave easy-to-spot contrails in the sky, and have become a fundamental factor in global trade and travel. This puts the industry smack in the middle of the ETS bullseye of Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action, and the global air transport industry’s number one archenemy.

The problem is airlines are limited in their ability to reduce fuel consumption or CO2 without significant capital investment to operate fuel-efficient aircraft or restricting demand. The ETS also provides little incentive for operators to reduce their usage. As Dr Elena Ares noted in a briefing paper to British Parliament, this price “is a significant amount for power plants, steel mills and the like, but translates into an insignificant 3.8 cents per liter of aviation kerosene”.

A European Commission Impact Assessment has already acknowledged that the EU ETS will only reduce aviation emissions by about 3%, in reality offsetting one year of industry emissions growth. Still the EU perseveres.

In a political and PR coup for their ETS programmes, the European Union and the Australian Government will hitch their schemes together under an interim link that will synchronise carbon pricing from 1 July 2015.

Australia’s current Government has done little to support the industry selectively applying the ETS to the regional aviation sector but not international operations, on top of an increase the Federal Government’s decision to increase fuel excises, new security charges, and end the Enroute Charges Payment Scheme.

So what does this ETS link mean for Australia’s aviation industry operators? Relatively good news actually, the scheme integration likely to deliver a short-term cost reprieve.

“No later than 1 July 2018” both ETS schemes will be fully linked permitting full trading of carbon permits and allowing Australia’s airlines to purchase EU emissions permits and use them in Australia. In addition, Australia will abandon its own pricing scheme, adopting the EU price of less than $10 per tonne.

This cheaper price, will translate into a lower excise added to the cost of aviation fuel. It could also see Australia’s regional airlines heading to Europe to purchase cheaper credits in the EU market to use back home. Eventually system prices will rise to €15 per tonne, but this will still be cheaper than the initial carbon price of $23 per tonne at current exchange rates.

Gillard is also treading a fine geopolitical line. Her move has also reversed Australia’s opposition to the EU ETS on aviation, effectively endorsing its obscure legality. Many countries still see charging for extraterritorial emissions on foreign aircraft as an invasion of sovereignty. Not the right line to be treading when our biggest trading partner is China, is already demonstrating to the European Union how far it is willing to go to protect its interests.

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