It’s been a bleak year. As I write this in mid-December, the world seems to be lurching closer to apocalypse.

The Israel-Hamas war is seen by many as a portend. Once again, evil activists conflate the violent actions of a small group of people with entire nations and religions, sparking hate-filled rhetoric and yet more violence. There seems to be no solution.

The paroxysms of the Middle East eclipse the long-playing tragedy of the Russia-Ukraine war, which I fear will only end with a Ukrainian capitulation after years of having been ground down by the Russians.

Locally the general aviation industry is also battling along, suffering under load shedding, high fuel prices and maintenance costs, ill-advised rule making and then un-rule making.

But as always, there are this year’s winners and losers:

Biggest Loser: Vans Aircraft builders: In a sign of the times, but nonetheless a huge shock – Van’s Aircraft went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, owing around $50m in order deposits. The only way the company can survive is by imposing large increases on those who have bought kits and are busy building.

Winners – Cessna 172 Owners: One of the hardest things to find in South Africa right now is a good used Cessna 172 (and an honest ANC member). The chronic shortage of the world’s most popular plane is due to the long-awaited pilot shortage, which has finally arrived. It’s now possible to sell a clapped-out 50 year-old Cessna 172 for well over R1 million. Sling 2s are also in huge demand.

Winners – all professional pilots: The most immediate beneficiaries of the pilot shortage are those pilots at airlines that are already experiencing shortages. To retain their skilled pilots the airlines are giving massive bonuses and wage increases. The pilot shortage, coupled with the general lack of ground support staff, hampered the airlines return to pre-Covid levels in 2022 but, with typical private sector efficiency, these problems were dealt with in 2023 and many key airports around the world are reporting traffic higher than 2019 levels.

General Aviation:

Beechcraft Denali: Still trying to cross the finish line: After it’s long gestation, the Denali has now had its certification pushed back to 2025. Progress for the PC-12 competitor is painfully slow, no doubt due to the huge challenges of having to certify an all-new airframe and engine.

Winner: Gulfstream G800: The bizjet performance bar has been raised yet again by Gulfstream’s G800 range and speed projections. With a max speed of M.925 it will be the fastest bizjet, and has the longest range: 13,000 km. The size of the market demand for these U$80 million jets will never cease to surprise me.

Winner: Sling Aircraft: At the other end of the scale, Sling Aircraft are once again big winners: they have now delivered over 1250 complete aircraft or kits, with an estimated 750 flying. What is even more impressive is that 80% of sales are now outside South Africa and they are making major headway into the huge American market. The first Sling High Wing with a Rotax 916 flew this year.

The War in the Air:

Losers all: Israelis and Hamas. After the unexpected invasion of Israel, Hamas continues to be pounded into oblivion. In Gaza they use women and babies as shields – in Israel the Iron Dome works incredibly well – taking out a reported 96% of Hamas rockets.

Losers all: Ukraine and Russia: The Ukraine war continues to bleed both sides. Still, the Ukrainian pilots must enjoy getting to grips with the F-16s they are being lent.

Loser: The SAAF: Back home the SAAF continues in dire straits. They have managed to cobble together a half-funded maintenance plan for the now 20 year old Gripens and their Volvo engines. In October I wrote a piece for general media consumption – arguing that we should put the SAAF out of its misery and just have an air wing of less than 75 planes in total. I thought I would get shot down by the militants – but everybody just seems resigned to the current defunct status of the SAAF.

The Airline Industry

Winner: Airlines worldwide: Globally, the airline industry has recovered from the Covid pandemic with airlines reporting seat sales above 100% of pre Covid levels. However, as demand has levelled off, so supply has caught up, and last year’s super profits are already history. In South Africa, some local airlines are already complaining that the industry is back to being over-traded. Yet seat prices remain high – thanks to high fuel costs.

Loser: Southern African tourism. During Covid 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. The loss of these three airlines took 50% of the available seat capacity out of the market. Losers are the travel and tourism industry as hotels and guest houses are still frantically discounting to lure travellers put off by high ticket prices and crime levels. How Lanseria is surviving is a mystery.

Loser: African Airlines: Africa is once again the laggard in that its bounce back from Covid has been far slower, partly due to yet more restrictions and taxes imposed by African governments to protect their own airlines. Will any African government, other than South Africa, ever take open skies and liberalisation seriously?

Loser: SAA: The remains of our once proud national carrier reported that it lost R150m in 3 months – despite promises that it was running profitably. Can these numbers be extrapolated for the whole year? – I can only hope not. SAA has reached the limits of its post-Business Rescue growth as it can get no more of its old planes back from the lessors. How will it fund new planes without going to government for guarantees – which it says it won’t? I have no idea – especially as the Takatso consortium deal seems still at least two years from completion – despite yet more empty promises from Pravin Gordhan. And yet SAA has tentatively announced that it will be getting three new widebodies in early 2024 and will reopen the Joburg-Perth route.

Winner: The other airlines in SA: It is boom times. There continues to be a flood of new used airliners arriving: Embraers for Airlink, Bombardiers for CemAir and Boeings for FlySafair.

Winner: Airbus – distant second:  Boeing: Meanwhile other airlines with better balance sheets are going bananas with new plane orders: Air India has ordered 470 new airliners: 250 from Airbus and 220 from Boeing. At the Dubai Airshow Emirates announced an order for 55 more Boeing 777-9s and 35 777-8s. That should create plenty of pilot jobs for Saffers. At the Paris Airshow, the home team of Airbus conclusively beat Boeing: Airbus claimed 849 firm orders, compared to Boeing’s 359.

Loser: Boeing: After its troubles with the 737 Max and 777X, Boeing has now given up on its long-needed response to the market conquering Airbus A321neo. 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 the market all to Airbus.

Losers: Passengers: The Americans are still wrestling with technology (and Imperial system measurements). In June 32,000 flights were delayed or cancelled due to concerns about 5G wireless technology.

Spaceships, Helicopters and Drones.

Winner: Falcon 9: SpaceX are launching a Falcon 9 every four days. Some boosters have now been reused 17 times: This is properly amazing.

Still getting to the start line: The Starship: The first Starship launch ended in one of Musk’s famous “Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly (RUD)” events (it was blown up). The second launch also ended in not one but two RUDs – but it got into space and was deemed a success.

Still waiting – Air taxis: The development of the dream of the passenger carrying drone continues apace. But in reality, nothing seems to happen. They are still a light year away from ever being approved for no-pilot manned flight, especially in VFR airspace.  Oh and someone flew a Cessna caravan with no pilot. Jim Davis says that they did this with a Tiger Moth 90 years ago.

Winner: It’s a boy! – well okay, it’s a MALE: For me a surprising announcement was the unveiling of a MALE – a medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, designed and built in poor old South Africa. The Milkor 380 is a private sector initiative and the performance is impressive. It is of similar size to the now infamous MQ-9 Reaper and is designed for long endurance operations. There is even talk of it being used for South Africa’s currently non-existent maritime patrol and search and rescue operations – but probably without the rescue part.

More Russian Drama:

Winners: Ural Airlines passengers: Back in Russia there was plenty of drama – the lack of maintenance due to war sanctions resulted in a Ural Airlines A320 landing in a field, following a major diversion for a hydraulic system failure. All 159 passengers and 6 crew survived. At time of writing they were waiting for the ground to freeze over so they could fly the plane out of the field.

The Biggest Loser: To nobody’s surprise, an Embraer Legacy 600 blew up in the air over Russia, killing all aboard, including Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mutinous Wagner Group.

Wrap-up

This year-end wrap-up would not be complete without a dig at the CAA – which continues to bumble along, managing simultaneously to be both overstaffed and yet painfully slow, to the extent it stifles growth, particularly in the drone and charter industry. It is still, against all common sense, persevering with airstrip registering and licensing and doesn’t seem to know whether it is coming or going with the 12 year limit for piston engine commercial ops.

From this very mixed bag of winners and losers it will be fascinating to see how 2024 unfolds. Let’s not forget it is darkest before the dawn. I hope and pray that 2024 will be better and wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

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