The asphyxiating effect of the COVID-19 has left the aviation industry and African airlines in severe difficulty. In this exclusive interview with Aviation & Allied Business Journal, Mr. Omar Arekat, Vice President of Boeing’s Commercial Sales and Marketing for Middle East, Africa & Turkey, says Boeing stands firm to support African airlines, as he assures of Boeing’s efforts to support the global industry combat the pandemic. He also comments on the future of the Boeing 737MAX.
Q: The COVID-19 has made unprecedented damaging impact on the aviation industry in Africa and globally. How would you describe the impact of the COVID-19 on Boeing’s activities in Africa?
A: This is the most challenging time in modern commercial aviation history on a global scale. We are now at a point when travel restrictions are gradually easing and air travel is resuming slowly, albeit at different rates around the world. Airlines are adjusting their fleet plans to align with a market that has dramatically changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and we continue to support the needs of our customers across Africa and the rest of the world during this economic and humanitarian crisis. There is no doubt the aviation industry will look very different as we eventually recover from this pandemic.
Despite the challenges we face, we are confident that the industry will recover. History has shown that the airline industry is resilient and that it will eventually return to its historical growth pattern. When that happens, Boeing – that has a long track record in Africa dating back over 75 years – will be there to support its customers in Africa and the rest of the world in their need to align their capacity with the market at that time. Meanwhile in addition to supporting our customers today, we are working with them and industry partners to reassure passengers that the entire aviation industry is working together to minimize the risk of disease transmission and keep passengers and flight crews healthy during air travel.
Q: The industry in Africa is looking to gradual restart of air transport activities; how is Boeing preparing to be part of the restart efforts?
A: Boeing is working together with airlines to ensure a confident return to flight. We are helping with fleet storage and de-preservation and sharing cross-model best practices and recommendations. Boeing has a long time knowledge and experience of restoring aircraft in different weather and storage conditions. We are also providing support for cargo operations – decisions on types of cargo are determined by airline and regulatory authorities and we are also working with industry groups to provide information to regulators on safe cargo transport in this new environment. We are providing information to airlines especially as they are using passenger jets to carry cargo in the cabin area.
Boeing is supporting its customers’ fleets across the world including Africa. Our customer support team has about 3,000 professionals and has a 24-hour operations centre providing support around the globe. We also have a team of field service personnel stationed across the world to support our customers at the same time working with other industry organizations during the crisis.
In addition, through Boeing’s Confident Travel Initiative, we are working with airlines, global regulators, industry stakeholders, infectious disease experts to help ensure that our customers have the tools they need to sanitize airplanes and communicate to the flying public about the multiple layers of protection that are in place to combat this threat.
The first layer is working with airlines and airports to help prevent anyone with the virus from boarding the airplane. This includes flexible re-booking procedures with airlines and passenger screening at airports. The second layer is assisting airlines on cleaning and disinfecting practices. The third layer helps to minimize contaminants from spreading throughout the cabin through the careful design of the cabin air system. Boeing aircraft are designed to help minimize the risk of disease transmission. High efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters used in all Boeing airplanes trap 99.9% of particulates including viruses and bacteria – as re-circulated air passes through them and helps prevent those particulates from re-circulating back into the cabin.
Q: Given the horrible impact of the pandemic, airlines look to governments for financial support; as a partner, however, does Boeing have plans to provide any form of support to African airlines to reduce cost?
A: The unprecedented challenges facing the aviation industry in Africa and around the world means that technology, fuel efficiency, reliability improvements are just as important as ever to manage and reduce operating costs. For example, new aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner bring design improvements, better aerodynamic designs, an enhanced passenger experience all contributing to improving the bottom line for airlines. In the context of Africa, these advantages and benefits includes our wide-body airplanes such as the 787 and 777 for longer-haul travel and single aisle with our 737 family which for long has been the backbone of domestic travel in Africa.
Q: The 737MAX is making progress toward return to service; what should operators in Africa be expecting in this regard?
A: Our focus continues to be on working with global regulators on the rigorous process that have put in place to safely return the 737 MAX to commercial service. As of July 6, we have conducted 1,255 737 MAX flights, totaling 2,415 hours with the updated software. Our teams are managing through the COVID-19 outbreak like many others by working virtually where we can, while taking precautions to ensure a safe environment for all of us.
We currently expect that the necessary regulatory approvals will be obtained in time to support resumption of 737 MAX deliveries during the third quarter. Of course, the actual timing will ultimately be determined by our regulators. We will continue to work closely with our customers in Africa and around the world to review their fleet plans and make adjustments where appropriate to adapt to lower than planned 737 MAX production in the near term, provide more flexibility to deliver MAX airplanes in our backlog, and protect the value of the MAX family.
Q: What is Boeing doing to mitigate the impact on its global business and personnel?
A: The coronavirus has impacted every aspect of our industry, resulting in a deep cut in the number of commercial jets and services our customers will need over the next few years. And while we’ve seen some green shoots around the world, these signs of eventual recovery do not mean the global health and economic crisis is over. Due to COVID-19, we’re seeing a direct impact on our supply chain business as fewer flights result in decreased demand for our parts and logistics offerings. Additionally, our customers are curtailing discretionary spend such as modifications and upgrades and focusing instead on required maintenance. Our industry and our company will recover, but it will take a few years to return to what it was just a few months ago.
We have and will continue to work with our customers on specific timing and adjustment to deliveries. We continue to closely monitor the commercial marketplace by staying very engaged with our customers around the globe to fully understand short-term and long-term requirements. All of this is informing current and future production rates and any further adjustments as needed to balance supply and demand going forward. The diversity of our portfolio including our government services, defense and space programs will continue to provide some stability as we navigate through the pandemic and rebuild stronger on the other side.
At the same time, Boeing is dedicating significant resources as we work together with governments and private industry to stop the spread of COVID-19 and ensure critical resources get into the hands of health care workers. Boeing is working with industry stakeholders to develop multiple layers of protections aimed at minimizing health risks for passengers and crews throughout the travel journey.
Q: What lesson have you learnt with the impact of the COVID-19, and what do you look forward to in the African market over the coming year?
A: Boeing’s history of innovation and collaboration is built on an enduring curiosity to solve tough challenges – we remain committed to listening, learning with humility and continuous improvement. Because there are so many unpredictable drivers for this crisis, we’ll have to monitor continuously what’s happening in our markets across the world including Africa and we will make adjustments whenever needed to ensure we’re helping our customers and matching the size of our business to the changing demand in the market.