Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Headwinds or Tailwinds? - Some More Random Thoughts....

A few weeks back, I had written a blog titled "Headwinds or Tailwinds?" on the latest in aviation, including the launch of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Yes, we have shrunk distances! The Dreamliner goes a long way from the Boeing 720s and 707s that I used to fly with my parents from Addis Ababa to Mumbai. Then planes had to land in Aden to refuel because they burned a lot of fuel while taking off from Addis, blame the altitude! Then came the 767s, one of which crashed of the Comoros islands after it was hijacked. The moot question is, Do we need aircraft for long distances, or do we need aircraft for shorter hops? The Second question is, in spite of the hype, will the Dreamliner sell? The Airbus A380 is a high capacity aircraft. I wonder whether it will sell in large numbers because it would not be cost effective to fly below its full capacity! The same goes for the Dreamliner, will it be cost effective, will it be a money spinner, would you like to bet your money on it?

So true, we have come a long way in air travel. But the whole charm of flying in a Boeing 707 was something that is almost indescribable. My mind still has vivid memories of the very regal Air-India Boeing 707s in the early 1980s and that of the Zambia Airways Boeing 707, resplendent in the pan-African colours, and the classic "Z" stylised as an eagle on the green tail!

Those were the days when there was a certain charm in flying. Now it is more of a chore. And sadly now, there is only one scheduled operator of the Boeing 707 - Saha Air of Iran! The other Boeing 707s are either junked in boneyards of Arizona or the Mojave Desert in California or operate as fuel tankers for air defence forces, especially in the United States and other NATO countries. The Indian Air Force also did operate a fleet of Boeing 707s, but those are rusting away in the Palam Technical Area of Delhi Airport - they are clearly visible from the road that links Terminal 1 and Terminal 3.

I recall travelling in an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 727 from Addis Ababa to Bombay in 1981. It was raining heavily when we boarded the trijet through an aerobridge - that was such a wow for me, a 5 year old then! As we took off from Addis Ababa, there was a lovely site of green terraced fields on hillsides - those memories are crystal clear. The majestic Lion of Judah, which symbolised the airline was everywhere on board - on the meal trays, napkins, etc. Then the meal that was served was one of the yummiest I had!

My sister recently travelled Ethiopian from Washington DC to Entebbe, and she did say the airline is still damn good - in the same period, Air-India has gone to the dogs (sic!). As was acknowledged by the Economist a few months back, Ethiopian, South African Airways and Kenya Airways are effectively serving the world by linking major commercial centres of the world to African cities.

Now Mr. Lal spoke about the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767, flight ET 961 crashing off the Comoros Islands. Yes, that was a sad incident which was widely publicised in India in 1996 - the flight originated in Bombay and after a stopover at Addis Ababa and was headed to Nairobi. The flight was hijacked by Ethiopians demanding asylum in Australia. The brave pilots refused to give in to the demands and the aircraft soon ran out of fuel and had crash land in the Indian Ocean. The horrific incident was videotaped by a South African couple on the Comoran beach, who actually though that the Boeing 767 was a part of an airshow.

Now coming to whether the Airbus A380 will be a viable option for airlines, in the long term, or not - well that's anyone's guess. But there are certain high density routes where such a massive capacity can be deployed. Airlines in Japan already deploy Boeing 747s on domestic routes. Korean carriers deploy Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s between Seoul and Hong Kong. There is a market at least for now. The Centre for Aviation brought out a listing of the busiest air routes last month, and the Delhi - Bombay route was listed as the 8th busiest in the world. Imagine, if we had carriers that were imaginative enough, a fleet of 5 Airbus A380s would be good enough to put the Rajdhani Express of the Indian Railways out of business - economies of scale will push down prices. We need to realise that travel time has an economic cost - it does not make sense to travel for over 16 hours when you do it in 3 hours, taking into account the checkin time.

The Dreamliner will sell - the aircraft is built with composites and plastics, making it much much lighter than similar aircraft in its class. In this age, where fuel costs are high and emission trading schemes are being enforced in the EU, airlines would look at the likes of the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 favourably.

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