Guy Leitch – It has been a surprisingly full year in aviation. Both in the humble corridors of general aviation and at the airline industry level.
General Aviation’s Winners and Losers.
Big winners have been general aviation aircraft owners. One of the surprises for me has been the huge increase in the value of our ancient general aviation fleet. It’s now possible to sell a clapped-out old Cessna 172 for well over R1 million, and I was astounded to see a second-hand RV-8 going for almost R5 million.
The good news for pilots and flight schools is that the long-awaited pilot shortage seems to have finally arrived. The most immediate beneficiaries are those pilots at airlines that are already experiencing pilot shortages. Those pilots are demanding massive wage increases and are going out on strike if they don’t get them. The pilot shortage, coupled with the general lack of ground support staff, has constrained much of the airlines’ recovery.
A big win for Cessna is its new twin turboprop cargo hauler, the SkyCourier, which received its FAA type certificate – after 2,100 hours of flight testing.
After it’s long gestation, the Beechcraft Denali is flying. I’ll chalk it up as a qualified win for Textron. The second prototype first flew in June, yet progress for the all-new aircraft and engine is painfully slow. At the NBAA BACE key industry expo, Beechcraft still only sent a fuselage mock-up of their hoped-for Pilatus PC12 beater.
The race between Bombardier and Gulfstream stepped up a notch when Gulfstream launched their biggest bizjet, the Gulfstream 800, which first flew in June. The size of the market demand for these U$80 million jets will never cease to surprise me.
A big loss to general aviation was the construction of the last Learjet, which rolled off the production line in June.
At the other end of the scale Sling Aircraft are once again big winners: in November Sling Aircraft celebrated its 1000th sale. (This milestone actually happened in March 2022).
The Sling Aircraft Factory boys yet again got away with their death-defying exploits. They flew not just one, but three, Sling High Wings to Oshkosh Airventure. The odds of a fatal disaster were obviously 3 times greater, yet all the flights went off without a hitch.
Full credit to Sling, and to the Rotax 915iS engine, although luck was required as the complex and hardworking 915iS engine has had more than its share of failures.
Helicopters And Drones
The world lost a giant when Frank Robinson, the founder of Robinson Helicopters, died aged 92.
Earlier in the year the tough economic conditions took their toll and Enstrom Helicopters finally folded after 62 years.
The development of the passenger carrying drone dream continues apace, with them regularly making headlines, but in reality, nothing actually seems to happen. They are still far from ever being approved for manned flight, especially in VFR airspace. Talking about drones, it seems that the Rotax engine is in demand in the unlikeliest GA country; Iran. Europe is suffering a plague of Rotax 912 engines being stolen off planes and then sold to Iran to power their ‘kamikaze drones’, spreading death and destruction across the Ukraine.
Down The Toilet – and Into The Swamp?
Given that the rest of South Africa seems to be steadily heading down the toilet to become one of Donald Trump’s infamous ‘shitholes’ with endless loadshedding and now water supply failures, plus the downgrade of our credit status to that of junk and the looming threat of a grey listing for investment security, it’s a small ray of light that the SACAA continues to be world-class in terms of its ICAO score, and most recently, in an FAA audit.
While we all love to hate our CAA as the regulator and traffic cop, there can be no denying that Ms Poppy Khoza is a big winner on the world stage. Being unanimously elected President of the latest ICAO General Assembly and having South Africa re-elected to the Governing Council is a real accomplishment. Despite the naysayers, she and her team are doing a great job in not just maintaining, but improving South Africa’s standing in terms of aviation regulation. It’s just a pity her actual organisation is overstaffed and yet painfully slow, to the extent it stifles growth, particularly in the drone and charter industry. And let’s forget the disaster of ZS-CAR crash at George; the CAA’s own huge compliance failure.
The Airline Industry
Globally, the airline industry has almost recovered from the Covid pandemic with airlines reporting seat sales above 80% of 2019’s level. Even more impressive are the yields, which are producing such big profits that some airlines, particularly domestic South African carriers, should recover all their losses in a single year.
‘the pilot shortage seems to have finally arrived’
However, Africa is once again the laggard in that its bounce back from Covid has been far slower, partly due to restrictions imposed by African governments to protect their own airlines. Will any government, other than South Africa, ever take open skies and liberalisation seriously?
South Africa’s Airline Battleground
Under pressure from government and the bottom line, SAA played dice with the lives of its trusting passengers when it made safety negotiable by flying an Airbus A330-300 with a load of 209 passengers and crew back from Abuja, despite having water in the fuel. There must have been white knuckles in the cockpit when, on a dark and stormy night over the Kalahari, an engine started surging due to the water contamination. Coming barely a year after the infamous alpha-floor vaccine flight incident, SAA was a big loser.
The biggest casualty of the long running airline war in South Africa was Comair, which could not survive long enough to benefit from the massive post-Covid boom. The other big loser was Mango, which despite being a fundamentally sound business proposition, was quietly allowed to die, presumably in favour of Lift, the Takatso Consortium’s own airline.
Talking about SAA, the Takatso Consortium deal is claimed to be still happening. Contracts were signed in February and all that we are waiting for is regulatory approval. However, this is extremely unlikely to happen before the promised deadline of end of March 2023. I have to wonder whether these unrealistic deadlines are simply not part of a massive smoke and mirrors conjob of the public.
Gidon Novick, the CEO of the Takatso consortium, resigned from the Harith Board and threw the whole Strategic Equity Partner privatisation of SAA into question. If it falls apart, the loser will once again be us – the long-suffering taxpayer.
Southern Africa travellers and tourism is a big loser. Travellers lost three key airlines: Comair with its two brands: British Airways and kulula. com. Also, Mango as the ‘no-frills’ low-cost carrier of SAA, was liquidated, and earlier, SA Express, which was mismanaged all the way into an early grave.
The loss of these three airlines took 50% of the available seat capacity out of the market and is a key reason behind the sky-high ticket prices we are enduring in South Africa. Losers are the travel and tourism industry as hotels and guest houses are still frantically discounting to lure travellers.
The big problem for the airlines, apart from a shortage of planes, is the spike in the oil price. This has given airlines the excuse to double their ticket prices and then redouble them for the sake of recovering their losses over Covid. A ticket between Johannesburg and Cape Town that used to cost R700 now costs around R3500.
A colossal loss of a different kind was that of the huge Antonov 225 Mriya which was destroyed in its hangar by the Russia-Ukraine war. There is hope that an even better one may emerge from the ashes.
In March the world closed its airspace to all Russian aircraft. The pictures coming out of Russia of Aeroflot flying airliners with far too many systems inoperable due to the inability to provide parts maintenance is truly scary. Minimum Equipment Lists have been relegated to the shelf of quaint old-fashioned standards in Russia.
Airbus Wins – Boeing Loses
The Airbus A321XLR first flight in June raised the single-aisle bar ever-higher beyond the much-diminished Boeing’s reach. After its troubles with the 737 Max and 777X, Boeing has now given up on its long-needed response to the market conquering Airbus A321. For a long while it was called Boeing’s MOM (for ‘middle of the market’). Now they’ve shelved the whole idea and left this huge sector of market all to Airbus.
The sideshow award must go to American Airlines which surprised the world by placing an order for 20 Boom Overture supersonic airliners. However, the lack of any likely engines for this supersonic transport suggests that this is order is not much more than an elaborate publicity stunt.
From this very mixed bag of winners and losers it will be fascinating to see how 2023 unfolds. I wish you all the best in this exciting industry.