Each year I try hand out light-hearted Oscar awards for the best and worst actors and performances in aviation over the past year. But for 2020, humour is in short supply, as most of the year was one protracted disaster movie, and so this column is more of a battle damage report.

Most of us in the aviation industry are shell-shocked walking wounded. The culprit is the Covid-19 pandemic.

Upfront let me nail my colours to the mast – and say that I am still open to being persuaded that the entire world over-reacted. I may even allow that there could be some diabolical conspiracy behind the pandemic to reset the global economy and the troublesome belief in the western mindset of the rights of the individual.

It’s no laughing  matter – but one of the few quips that resonates is that this year people are staying up to midnight on the 31 December, not to see the new year in, but to check that 2020 is finally over.

The Aviation Industry

It is now a cliché to say that aviation is in the middle of the biggest crisis it has ever faced, but, if for no other reason than posterity’s sake, I need to briefly consider just how flattened our industry is. Airline revenues have collapsed and the always fragile general aviation industry has been brought to its knees.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way and start with the big disaster: The airline Industry in Africa: revenue loses are expected to reach $8 billion. But as IATA points out – the impact is much broader. The consequences of the breakdown in air connectivity are severe: five million African jobs are at risk and aviation-supported GDP could fall by as much as $37 billion, and that’s a 58% drop.

Still, its not all doom and gloom. If you look hard enough you can always find a few silver linings. The air freight industry has done well, simply because, without passenger airliners flying there has been a chronic lack of belly space for cargo. This has meant that there has been more than enough demand to keep the pure cargo operators happy – and indeed, making super profits. (Except SAA Cargo of course).

Similarly, the pure VIP biz-jet operators are doing pretty well. Those who can afford not to have to mix with the germ-infested lumpen proletariat have used biz-jets to lord it above the hoi polloi.

Perhaps surprisingly, many of the better Aircraft Maintenance Organisations also report good business. It would seem that aircraft owners took the opportunity to get longstanding maintenance snags addressed, or even new interiors and paint jobs.

But these are the exceptions – and it’s worth restating what I have said before: the aviation industry leads a recession and lags its recovery. It will therefore take longer than the rest of the economy to recover.

For the operators in the Okavango Delta and other high-end game lodges, international tourism is not expected to recover much before the middle of next year. And a recovery in 2021 assumes that the major sources of overseas tourists can agree the elaborate two-step dance required to comply with both origin and destination health protocols.

Both Airbus and Boeing have taken great financial strain, but Boeing in particular has had a torrid time. The stress ended its courtship with Embraer. Other notable casualties have been the death of A380 and 747-8 new builds and massive fleets of parked airliners – many of which will never fly again. I know of SAA crews who shed a discrete tear when they left SAA’s pristine fault-free A340-600s in the desert to be hacked by bulldozers.

Boeing’s much hoped for certification of the 777X has still not happened, however small relief came in the FAA approval of the 737 Max for return to flight. Whether the airlines and passengers will be keen on flying the Max remains to be seen.

General Aviation

In general aviation (GA) we saw evidence – if any was needed – that flying a light aircraft is actually not easy. Pilots who had been law-abidingly flightless for six months suddenly found that they were way behind their planes and there was an embarrassing spike in aircraft accidents from pilots who had forgotten how to fly.

The lockdown obviously had the effect of reducing the overall accident count dramatically – yet the accident rate seems to have gone up – but as usual we still don’t have definite numbers as the CAA still cannot provide accident stats based on the number of hours flown.

The GA industry within South Africa was dealt a further blow by the continued impoverishment of South Africans through the weakening of the Rand, thanks to a full tri-fecta of  junk status ratings. Once again, new aircraft have become all but unaffordable and orders dried up for OEM agents. At the same time, owners have been increasingly exporting their planes, and thus the fleet of GA aircraft within South Africa continues to both shrink and age.

The splendid Sling Aircraft company is one of the few beneficiaries of the weakening Rand. The company rather belatedly changed its name from the anodyne ‘The Airplane Factory’ to just ‘Sling Aircraft’. This change recognises that the Sling has become a worldwide success story as a brand. 85% of all its new sales are made outside South Africa, with half to the USA – which is a notoriously tough market to crack.

Also great to see from Sling Aircraft is a final push to get the high wing Sling 4 flying. I’m told that this will still happen this year, hopefully by the time you read this, but as they’ve been promising a high wing for more than ten years, I’m not holding my breath.

Good progress was made with electric planes, although personally I remain deeply sceptical about their real ability to compete with fossil fuel burners. Nonetheless, the successful flying of the electric MagniX Cessna C208 and Piper Meridian is a huge step forward. Even Sling Aircraft have an all-electric Sling 4 being developed by ETH University in Switzerland as well as a Hydrogen Fuel cell version being developed by Delft University in Holland.

SAA

I would love not to have to say anything about the protracted death of South African Airways – as it is unspeakably tragic. But, like a slowly unfolding horror movie, SAA holds a morbid fascination for all South Africans.

The double-whammy of both Covid-19 and the maladministration of SAA has taken a huge toll on personal lives. I know of pilots’ wives working nights as hotel receptionists and of 20,000 hour Captains driving TLB back-actors and busses.

As a group, the greatest victims are Senior First Officers, aged around 40, who have 15 or more years of service, but who were stuck at First Officer due to the lack of SAA growth. When the airline industry recovers, these SFOs, who have mortgages and children in expensive schools, will have to compete against 28-year-old Captains with 1000 hours of command, who have a low cost of living and can therefore accept much lower salaries.

We know that things will never be the same again, but what will the new normal be? Full service airlines have traditionally relied on the fat profit margin from business class, yet the number of business travellers may be reduced by as much as half due to the widespread adoption of webinars and online conferencing, instead of face-to-face meetings.

SAA has been in Business Rescue for a full year, yet the airline is in a worse position than when it began the Business Rescue – and carrying on as before is a hopeless dream. Yet this dream is nurtured by those who deceive themselves and others into believing that the airline is saveable. The big issue is once again the ANC government’s insistence – at all costs – for racial transformation of the pilot body. This appears to be an objective that has no limits when it comes to spending the public’s hard-earned taxes on a vanity project.

The SA government seems oblivious to the enormous resentment amongst voters and its supporters against its airline. And like it or not, if pilots are promoted on the basis of race, rather than on skill or experience, the faith that passengers have in SAA’s safety will be irretrievably damaged. People will rather book on other airlines.

The so-called Black Pilots Association at SAA argues vehemently that their standards are just as good as any others because they passed the same proficiency checks. However, I am aware of many examples where the airline “bent over blackwards” to accommodate struggling pilots. The claim that all pilots are the same will simply not wash.

The more the ANC government persists with the money-is-no-object drive to racially transform the pilot body, and at the same time, throw out the seniority system (that is accepted worldwide), and abolish the tyranny of Training Captains, the greater will be the pressure for the true story to be told of the compromises that were made in pilot proficiency standards. (I sense a book on this.)

The entire business plan for SAA is a fairy tale. It is predicated on absurd assumptions such as the airline being profitable with 61% loads, despite the cost of having to transform and to operate politically expedient, but otherwise unprofitable, routes.

All this makes the airline un-investable. Minister Pravin Gordhan wants us to believe that there is ‘white knight’ strategic equity partner waiting in the wings to bail it out, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

The SAAF

In 2020 the South African Air Force Apparatchiks tried to pretend that it was 27 years old and not 100. It also saw the retirement of its first black chief, Lt. Gen. Zakes Msimang who threw a few parting punches against stupid politicians in his farewell speech.

Meanwhile the SAAF continued to break its few remaining active assets, with the write-off of an irreplaceable C130 Hercules in a runway excursion in Goma.

The CAA

Pilots either hate the CAA, or just ruefully shrug their shoulders and say, “This is Africa”. Thus, some accepted that it takes 60 days to renew basic aircraft documentation. Others remember the good old days when you could get documentation done while you had a cup of coffee.

This year, thanks to Covid-19, CAA staff were allowed to work from home. It seems that much of the work was not done, perhaps because they did not have access to a working enterprise management system, even though the CAA spent upwards of R90 million on one a few years ago. So the endless checking and double checking of signatures and box ticking was not possible, and Certificates of Registration and Authorities to Fly took months.

Nonetheless, to give the CAA it’s due, it seems to have tried its best to sort out the backlog, and as we head into the end of the year, the situation has become tolerable for most users. Meanwhile the regulator continues to get pounded in the courts, where it loses legal battle after legal battle.

SpaceX

Big happy news was achieved by SpaceX. Our Pretoria boykie, Elon Musk, really showed that he does have the right stuff in that they flew two astronauts to the space station and back in May and then a full crew in November.

SpaceX is also pushing ahead with its Starlink project to provide widespread 5G coverage to the third world. This is obviously to be welcomed, however I fear the impact of all these little satellites as future space debris.

Conclusion

So as for 2020, that was an extraordinarily bleak year.

From this low point, things can only get better. I still believe that; “This too shall pass” and, “It’s always darkest before the dawn”.

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