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UK airports – A snapshot of the extent of traffic recovery from pre-pandemic levels

by BGL Communications on June 8, 2022 Comments Off on UK airports – A snapshot of the extent of traffic recovery from pre-pandemic levels

Whilst many UK airports are facing major operational issues handling the surge in demand following the Covid 19 pandemic, there is considerable variation in their extent of recovery of traffic from pre-pandemic levels.

Some airports, particularly those handling a high proportion of low-cost traffic are now handling over 80% of passengers in comparison to 2019 levels, whilst others have fared less well as airlines have cut back or delayed introducing new capacity as we move towards the summer peak.

As a snapshot of where the UK airport sector currently stands, we have compared the proportion of passenger and freight handled in April 2022 against that in April 2019. The analysis is based on the latest CAA monthly traffic statistics which covers the majority of the UK’s larger airports – although Bristol and Southend are excluded due as no data was submitted to the CAA.

The results are illustrated in the graphs below. To show the impact by airport size, we have analysed the data by three groups – major hub airports handling over 6.0 million passengers pa in 2019, larger regional airports handling 500,000–6.0 million passengers pa and smaller regional airports handling between 200,000-500,000 million passengers pa.

Stansted’s recovery at 85% of pre-pandemic levels is largely due to the early introduction of capacity by Ryanair. In April 2022, Heathrow recovered to 75% of April 2019, after a significant increase in traffic (+47%) between February and March 2022. Traffic recovery has been somewhat slower at Gatwick, which has been particularly impacted by flight cancellations, notably by EasyJet, although this may change over the summer peak. As a group, these larger airports recovered to some 76% of April 2019 levels which, as indicated below is significantly higher than most of the UK’s smaller regional airports.

In terms of mid-sized regional airports, Leeds Bradford and Newcastle appear have made the strongest recovery from the pandemic as at April 2022. East Midlands airport, where traffic was 63% of April 2019 levels, seems to have avoided much of the travel chaos experienced at other UK airports. Although London City had a 35% increase in traffic in April 2022 over the previous month, it has a lower proportion of leisure passengers, which are largely leading the recovery at this stage.

The picture at the UK’s smaller regional airports is more mixed. Some airports such as Bournemouth where Ryanair predominates have recovered well. Doncaster Sheffield also appears to have made a good recovery as at April 2022, although Wizz Air has announced a large number of cancellations over the summer due to a commercial dispute with the airport. Other smaller regional airports are some way behind – although their summer schedules often start later than those at larger airports. As a group, traffic levels in April 2022 were some 53% of those in April 2019.

The recovery in terms of air freight handled is also mixed. Whilst air freight, particularly that carried by dedicated freighters increased during the pandemic, overall volumes have reduced in 2022 as the UK economy slows down. In April 2022, UK airports handling over 400,000 tonnes of freight annually achieved some 89% of April 2019 levels. The strongest performers were Stansted, East Midlands and Prestwick due to their high proportion of dedicated freighter traffic although Heathrow has recovered well in 2022 due to the increasing availability of bellyhold capacity.

It should be stressed that this analysis should be regarded as a snapshot of the picture in April 2022 in a rapidly changing market. Despite the terminal chaos experienced at some larger UK airports, the traffic volumes suggest that they should ultimately recover more quickly provided there are no major setbacks over the summer. For small regional airports the situation is undoubtably more challenging.

The extent to which they will fully recover from the pandemic remains uncertain and, to maintain regional connectivity across the country, many smaller airports are likely to require government support in the longer term.

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BGL CommunicationsUK airports – A snapshot of the extent of traffic recovery from pre-pandemic levels

Challenging times now but electric aircraft could revolutionise GA airfields

by BGL Communications on June 2, 2020 Comments Off on Challenging times now but electric aircraft could revolutionise GA airfields

Although the focus of the aviation industry during the Covid-19 pandemic has been on how to support the recovery of commercial airlines and airports, it is important not to neglect the situation facing the UK’s general aviation (GA) and specialist GA airfields.

There are some 120 licensed GA airfields and 350-500 unlicensed sites for flying in the UK catering for all types of activities including corporate aviation, recreational flying, flight training, gliding and parachuting amongst others. Many support a wide variety of on-site aviation businesses, including aircraft maintenance, flying schools and air charter as well as non-aviation related businesses ranging from storage, printing and car repairs to those in the high-tech science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sectors. A study conducted for the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) in 2015 suggested that the total economic value of GA to the UK’s economy was around £3.0 billion of Gross Value Added (GVA) and supports in excess of 38,000 jobs, of which 9,700 are supported by GA flying activity at the aerodrome level and 28,400 are supported by GA manufacturing.

Many UK GA airfields closed during the Covid-19 lockdown period although some of these are now starting to reopen, albeit with limited operating hours and, in some cases, only open for home-based aircraft. Whilst solo flights or those with a household member are acceptable, training flights are not currently feasible under present social distancing requirements. The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly reduced the number of movements at GA airfields, although the situation does vary considerably across the country. Many airfield businesses have closed and have furloughed staff which, in the case of aircraft maintenance, creates additional problems for owners of home-based aircraft wishing to continue flying as well as reducing rental income for the airfield itself. It remains to be seen as to the extent to which flying activities will pick up during the peak July/August period, although the change in the furlough arrangements allowing part-time work at airfield businesses should help recovery.

Gloucester Airport is open on a limited operating hours basis.  The terminal is currently shut.

The position of larger GA airfields such as Gloucester and Biggin Hill, which have a higher proportion of corporate jet movements, is likely to be more secure.  Corporate aircraft are owned by large international companies or by high-wealth individuals and, given the cabin size, social distancing can be less of an issue.   An analysis by the aviation consultancy WINGX has shown that business aviation is considerably more resilient than the scheduled service sector with traffic levels now some 70% of pre-Covid-19 levels.  Business aviation is undoubtedly the more profitable side of the GA airfield sector, although it is correlated to the UK economy and is likely to decline in the expected economic recession.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the GA sector has faced a number of major challenges. There are difficulties attracting younger people to take up flying, resulting in a gradual decline in the number of PPL holders over the past 10 years. This is not helped by the increasing age of training aircraft and the high capital cost of replacement. There have been similar reductions in the overall number of flight hours by the UK GA fleet as a whole. The sector has been burdened with increasing regulation and it remains to be seen whether this will change once the UK has left EASA. There have also been pressures on uncontrolled (Class D) airspace used by some GA airfields due to the expansion of nearby commercial airports.

The benefits of general aviation both to the UK economy and as a social recreation are recognised in the government’s strategy consultation – ‘Aviation 2050 – the future of UK aviation’ and the Department of Transport’s capability to support the sector have been increased by the appointment of a GA Champion and additional departmental staff. But in addition to the economic and social benefits, GA airfields can help to spark an interest in aviation for younger people and offer a key stepping stone for many of the UK’s future commercial pilots. Some airfields provide a base for the Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) and the National Police and Coastguard helicopters. Others have a heritage value, often as an ex-World War II airfield. Many offer community benefits such as an on-site café catering not only for airfield users but also for local residents and hold local events such as open air markets and fun days.

Given the pressures of finding suitable sites for residential housing, it is perhaps not surprising that some local airfields have become targets for property speculators.

As a consequence, several UK airfields have closed over the past 10 years including Plymouth, Manston, Dunsfold and Panshangar. Others under threat of closure include Fairoaks, Long Marston and Andrewsfield, although some these proposed developments are in the Green Belt and face strong resistance from local residents. In recognition of this threat, the government has proposed establishing a network of protected GA airfields across the country. This concept is now incorporated in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) although the size and nature of the network and the degree of planning protection given is yet to be finalised. Further support for the general aviation sector and the protection of GA airfields has been provided by the establishment of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for general aviation. The APPG, which was set up by Grant Shapps, now Minister for Transport, now has some 208 members across both Houses of Parliament, making it the largest group of its type.

Although the UK’s GA airfields face challenges in the short-term, there are significant opportunities ahead, particularly as a base for the development and use of a new generation of electric aircraft.  Battery-powered electric aircraft currently have a much more limited payload than traditional aviation fuel powered aircraft, although the direct operating costs are favourable.  GA airfields could potentially be used for short-haul commercial flights using 7-12 seater electric aircraft or as a base for Uber-style electric aircraft taxis.  Furthermore the reduced operating cost of electric aircraft could potentially cut the cost of ab-initio pilot training by as much as 70%.

In the immediate future, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is placing substantial pressure on GA airfields and its related businesses.  Financial support from the UK government may be necessary to keep some airfields afloat although they may need to compete with other sectors, including the commercial aviation industry as a whole, for such funding.  One funding proposal which could perhaps assist in the short-term would be VAT relief on flight training or engineering-based training for the general aviation sector.

Over the longer-term, a careful balance needs to be struck to ensure that an appropriate number of specialist airfields can survive on a commercial basis to enable the transport, recreational and economic benefits of GA to be realised.

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BGL CommunicationsChallenging times now but electric aircraft could revolutionise GA airfields

Should ICAO make wearing face masks compulsory for all passenger flights worldwide?

by BGL Communications on May 5, 2020 Comments Off on Should ICAO make wearing face masks compulsory for all passenger flights worldwide?

To minimise the risk of transmission during the Covid-19 pandemic and to restore passenger confidence in flying, it is important that ICAO, as the global aviation regulator, sets common standards for appropriate measures for passengers and crew onboard flights and for transiting through airports. But what are the parameters for assessing and implementing these and what might be the implications for the industry as a whole?

Guided by the medical evidence

The first point to stress is that all measures and standards of operation for aviation must be guided by the medical evidence. This is the case for how we get out of Covid-19 lockdown for all work and social activities – not just aviation. The medical evidence is, of course, evolving quickly but often this can be contradictory. It is not clear for example as to whether the two metre social distancing rule can be reduced without any significant increase in the risk of transmission of the virus A government health advisor in the UK, Professor Robert Dingwall from Nottingham Trent University has indicated that there is a fairly solid evidence base for a an unsafe transmission rate if indoors and within one metre of someone with a respiratory infection for 15 minutes. This would suggest that, even with the middle seats vacant on aircraft, flights may not be entirely risk-free. Nor it is clear whether the health testing of passengers prior to flying is appropriate. The medical evidence is further complicated by the reliability of any tests that might be required for air travel with temperature checks unable to pick up asymptomatic cases and rapid blood checks have so far not proved to be sufficiently reliable.

What measures have so far been introduced on those flights currently being operated?

Many airlines in the US including Delta, American and Spirit Airlines have already blocked off the middle seats for most, if not all, of their flights. The European low-cost airline, easyJet, has indicated that it will do the same in the short-term once flights resume. Ryanair, however, opposes this preferring temperature checks at departure airports as the primary measure for reducing infection. Of course, middle seats are generally the least preferred on the aircraft and, in the short-term, load factors are likely to be relatively low, so the potential loss of revenue may not be very significant for some airlines. Some relaxation of the middle seat rule might also apply for families travelling together. It is also likely that the risk increases not only by the physical distance between passengers but also by the duration of the flight.

Many US domestic and airlines operating in China and SE Asia require all passengers to wear face masks. This initiative, led by jetBlue, whose CEO defines this as the ‘new flying etiquette’ has also been followed by other US airlines including Delta, United, Alaska, Southwest American and Frontier.

The US Association of Flight Attendants has called for the Federal Government to make the wearing of face masks for all US airlines. To date, Lufthansa is the only European airline to make the wearing of masks compulsory for all passengers. But should this go further with a stipulation by ICAO for the mandatory wearing of masks by all passengers worldwide, at least for the foreseeable future?

Other in-flight procedures adopted by US airlines include the provision of disinfectant wipes for all passengers and deep cleans between flights and overnight. There have been suggestions that, in the immediate future, all bags should be checked in free, thereby limiting passenger interaction loading overhead lockers. At present, all these measures are at the discretion of individual airlines – although clearly at present they need to demonstrate to passengers that the flights are as safe as practically possible. A key concern is how long airlines are prepared to operate in this way, particularly with potentially unprofitable load factors. There may be a strong temptation to relax these measures, particularly if the public starts to tire of social distancing.

Several US airlines have adopted revised boarding procedures to minimise interactions between passengers. This is certainly feasible where airports are operating limited flight schedules but they may be more problematic if flights need rapid boarding to meet ontime departure slots. Longer boarding times are an inevitable outcome as long as social distancing is necessary during the pandemic.

How safe are airports?

The screening of passengers on or before arrival at the departure airport may, to some degree, successfully filter out active cases of Covid-19. This will reduce the likelihood of infection both within the departure airport and also during the flight and at the arrival airport, although many countries may still require border screening for all incoming passengers.

Airports in China, Italy and the US are amongst those introducing temperature checks together with self-administered questionnaires for all departure passengers. Methods include full-body infrared scanners (which measure skin temperature as a proxy for core body temperature), handheld infrared thermometers and ear gun thermometers. Heathrow is pressing for all UK and indeed all airports worldwide to introduce temperature checks, although the UK government has not so far specified this as a mandatory requirement. Gatwick has indicated that it is evaluating various options, including temperature checks, but it appears to prefer some type of pre-check before travel carried out by the passenger’s GP or at a pharmacy. This would effectively provide a ‘health passport’ for the trip. One regional UK airport. Bournemouth, is installing tripod mounted thermal ‘fever-detection’ cameras at all entry points to the airport terminal to alert security guards to potentially infectious passengers. However, with Covid-19’s incubation period of up to 14 days and many cases asymptomatic, the evidence for the effectiveness of thermal screening at airports is limited. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine estimates that using thermal checks only one in five coronavirus-infected passengers can be detected at the airport. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, thermal temperature checks at airports may still form part of a package of measure designed to reduce the infection risk.

Emirates, in conjunction with the Dubai Health Authority, has trialled a rapid blood test for the virus for all passengers. The tests, which were carried out on all passengers on a B777-300ER flight from Dubai to Tunis were undertaken near the check-in area, with results available with 10 minutes. But as with temperature checks, there are still some doubts about the efficiency of such rapid tests and the overall scalability of conducting these for all flights at major airports.

Regardless of either temperature checks and/or blood tests, airports will still need to adopt physical distancing measures in all key operational and passenger processing areas, including security, gate lounges, baggage reclaim and immigration.

This will present major challenges particularly at larger airports where flight schedules may need to be revised to limit passenger throughput at peak times. Manchester Airport has adopted a two metre ‘social distancing’ rule throughout the airport which is reinforced by floor markings and other signage, although other international airports, have reduced this to 1.5 metres. At present, these measures are manageable, although there are doubts on their feasibility at peak periods as traffic levels increase. Crowding in baggage reclaim can be a particular problem. To limit this, Manchester Airport sometimes holds aircraft on the ground on arrival before allowing passengers to enter the terminal.

Protection of airline and airport staff

Whilst much of the focus has been on ensuring the health of passengers during the pandemic, it is important not to forget front-line airline and airport staff who have significant physical interaction with passengers or with each other. Passengers on BA’s long-haul flights are now handed their packed meal and a drink when they board the aircraft rather than be served by the cabin crew. Many airline staff are transported around airports in buses and there have been calls to limit the number of passengers or increase the size of the buses to improve social distancing. Ground handling staff often work in close proximity to each other and need to ensure they are adequately protected. IATA and ACI have been helpfully providing guidance to their airline and airport members on appropriate operational measures for airline and airport staff during the pandemic, although ultimately the responsibility for implementing these rests with individual airports and airlines rather than as a mandatory government requirement or one imposed directly by an international aviation organisation.

Common international standards

ICAO, as the global international regulator, is taking a keen interest in assessing strategic priorities for airlines and airports during the Covid-19 pandemic and has recently established an Aviation Recovery Task Force, with representatives from IATA, ACI, the World Health Organisation and the World Tourism Association. The Task Force has agreed to provide its initial recommendations by the end of May. In the case of previous pandemics and similar health-related events impacting commercial aviation, ICAO has stipulated that national governments should define the relevant measures or health checks required for safe operations within their own jurisdictions. This may have some advantages in that the health risks may vary from country to country. However, in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic this is leading to a mishmash of different measures introduced by airlines and airports worldwide. Should ICAO now lead from the front with some specific unambiguous requirements, such as the compulsory wearing of face masks or the acceptable aircraft seating configurations which are mandatory for all flights worldwide?

The recovery of the aviation industry has many challenges ahead, but this may perhaps help to instil confidence in flying to the travelling public.

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BGL CommunicationsShould ICAO make wearing face masks compulsory for all passenger flights worldwide?

Covid-19: How the aviation sector can support humanitarian aid relief

by BGL Communications on April 9, 2020 Comments Off on Covid-19: How the aviation sector can support humanitarian aid relief

The Covid-19 pandemic has so far been more widespread in developed countries, although it is now expanding to the world’s poorer nations, where its impact on human lives may be even more significant in the longer-term.

Whilst many developed countries face an uncertain economic future, it is essential that humanitarian aid is provided to those areas of the world, particularly in Africa and the Indian subcontinent which have limited healthcare resources and may face difficulties in implementing appropriate social distancing measures. Covid-19 outbreaks in these countries may also be compounded by widespread famine. There are particular challenges in some situations such as refugee camps where, in some cases, humanitarian aid workers, including medical personnel, are currently unwelcome as they are seen as potentially carrying the virus.

Traditionally humanitarian relief has been provided by the main international agencies in conjunction with NGOs. These include UN agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), USAID, the EC’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO) and the International Federation of the Red Cross.

The NGO sector includes a wide range of charitable organisations including Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children, Oxfam, Care International and many others. These will provide support in the fight against Covid 19 whilst continuing their role in other emergency and disaster relief. But charities themselves are impacted by Covid-19. A recent survey indicated that, on average, UK-based charities expected their income to decline by some 32% this year and that 52% had already reduced their activities. It is possible that national governments may provide some financial support to charities, although this must compete with other sectors of the economy facing similar challenges as a result of Covid-19.

Aviation is vital to transport medical experts, emergency staff and equipment to those areas most in need. Specialist relief flights will be required at the global level and on a regional basis from the main airport hubs out to remote regions where no alternative method of transport is feasible or safe. WHO and WFP are supported by UNHAS (the UN’s Humanitarian Air Service) which charters aircraft from the commercial sector and currently provides flights to some 16 countries worldwide.

DG ECHO operates two similar charter operations, ECHO Flight and the EU Flight, predominately in sub-Saharan Africa, which are complemented by other ad-hoc charter flights, as required. The IFRC also charters from the commercial sector and through partnerships, including a Framework Agreement with Airbus. These air services were used extensively during the Ebola outbreak in Africa but will need to be ramped up if, as expected, the Covid-19 pandemic expands to the less-developed world. ICAO is ensuring delivery of humanitarian aid through its CAPSCA Programme (Collaborative Arrangement for the Prevention and Management of Public Health Events in Civil Aviation).

Somewhat ironically, whilst many commercial aircraft are now grounded as a result of Covid-19, the demand for specialist humanitarian aid flights is likely to increase.

 

To achieve this, it is important that appropriate airport and air navigation services remain operational, particularly in face of possible funding and staffing shortages during the pandemic. There may also be shortage of suitable aircraft types that can be chartered, particularly in remoter regions served by gravel runways or dirt strips suitable only for certain turbo-prop or piston aircraft.

The aviation sector has proved in the past that it can provide quick and reliable support for disaster and other emergency relief. It is now embarking on perhaps its greatest ever challenge.

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BGL CommunicationsCovid-19: How the aviation sector can support humanitarian aid relief