2019: Not aviation’s best year, in a rapidly changing world

The world of aviation has had a rough year. Some major airline collapses – Jet in India, Thomas Cook in Europe high amongst them.

The collapse of WOW in the LCC market showed up blind ambition once again, proving, again, it’s no way to keep an airline flying. Norwegian’s founder was finally edged out and the company is fighting to stay in the game with people in charge who know how to run an airline.

Tragedy dropped Boeing into a crisis like no other over the 737MAX, and the year unwound for Boeing like a “what a could possibly go wrong next” soap opera. Much of it was of its own making. By years end the 737 was temporarily out of production. Over the last week in the no-news hiatus the CEO, PR, Legal, and Crisis Managers for the 737 were all retired or left the company as it aims to start 2020 with new faces.

The face of Boeing and the architect of its problems finally left the building. Denis Muilenburg landed on an $800k a year pension and millions in bonuses

Boeing’s quality issues continue to raise their heads, from Starliner to KC46, 787, 737NG, problems are too often very public and seem immune from change.

The engine manufacturers have had their own rough year. All of them have had issues across the A320, A220, 737, A380, 787 and 777-9.

Rolls Royce Trent-1000 issues on the 787 just don’t stop, seeming to cascade as one fix creates another problem then another- £1 billion has spent just keeping up with it at RR alone in 2019 and it’s far from being fully resolved. Staff were told just before Christmas they wouldn’t get a pay rise in the new year.

Airbus have had more than a few engine related problems, groundings of A220’s and engine failures on dozens of A320neo’s or restrictions on their flying have all contributed to airline dissatisfaction with engine suppliers. It’s been well managed and there have been no disasters, but it highlights what is possibly one of aviations biggest problems.

And that problem is the pressure to deliver new airliners before the engines are truly ready, lack of development time has become a major issue. Emirates seem to have had enough, saying, and hopefully leading the way, with a refusal to accept aircraft where engines haven’t been fully developed to a satisfactory level.

End of the road for an engineering wonder

Airbus faced the end of the A380, realism finally took hold and Emirates finally conceded it was a dead end. With barely 12 year old A380’s headed to scrap, the small operator fleets – Lufthansa, Qatar, AirFrance, all announced retirements and AirFrance has already started the process.

Much of the cause was cost of refurbishment- up to US$60m per aircraft was just too high, and all three airlines consider them unreliable engine wise. AirFrance admitted to having at least one a week going technical.

Boeing’s order book for the 777-9 hasn’t grown since 2014, the 777-8 seems to be dead even if Boeing aren’t ready to kill it, the GE engine delay has pushed the project back a year, but for once airlines don’t seem to mind. They’re not bothered by lower capital expense in a soft market, so for many it’s been a negative that’s become a positive.

Airbus has one of its best years despite its multiple issues. The A321XLR saw over 400 orders and it won’t be delivered until 2023. The A321neo production line has had severe issues but they’re working through them, though slower than they might have liked.

A321 family takes the world by storm

Their biggest victory, the Qantas decision to use the A350-1000ULR for Project Sunrise. Over time this could be a game changer and Airbus and the major airlines know it.

Questions hang over what Boeing, now under new leadership, will do next. 2020 will be all about returning the 737MAX to the skies and back into production.

The 777-9 should hopefully have flown by March-April at the latest. Yet the biggest question is what next? The 797/NMA project needs a decision, and every day sees sales lost to the A321 as 757’s need replacing. Or, is it just so battered as a type and a brand, that the 737 just has to be replaced with a new generation of single aisle’s? They’re stark choices that take years to bring to fruition, but decisions need to be made.

Last but by no means least, the MAX saga shot to pieces the global leadership of the FAA. Not one of the major national regulators, especially China and India, and the pan-European EASA, are prepared to accept the FAA’s recertification of the MAX as reason enough to rubber stamp their approvals as they once did.

The implications for future aircraft certifications are widespread. Unless they all decide to work together it could take far longer to certify new aircraft types, never mind make building and testing aircraft more complex and expensive.

And then there’s the environmental issues. Airlines have been greenwashing their behaviour for years and they still are. The pressure to do more and quickly, is only going to grow. Expect more protests, more disgruntled reaction from airlines. But also expect legislators to act and airlines to slowly realise change is essential to protect their bottom lines.