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RAF touts potential of Protector programme

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems is arriving at the Farnborough air show on a high, after completing a historic transatlantic first with its MQ-9B SkyGuardian – the basis for the UK Royal Air Force’s future Protector remotely-piloted air system.

The medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicle touched down at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire on 11 July, following a more than 24h direct flight from Grand Forks, North Dakota: a distance of 3,760nm (6,950km), flown at 27,000ft. The aircraft appeared in the static display at the Royal International Air Tattoo.

To carry the designation Protector RG1 in UK service, and to replace the RAF’s current MQ-9 Reapers, the new type is expected to achieve initial operational capability during 2023. The service’s 31 Sqn – formerly equipped with the Panavia Tornado GR4 – will be the first unit to field the type, at its Waddington base in Lincolnshire.

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Mark Kwiatkowski/FlightGlobal

Air Cdre Ian Gale, the RAF’s senior responsible owner, ISTAR programmes, described the meticulously-planned transatlantic crossing as “mundane”, with the SkyGuardian touching down within 4cm of the runway centreline. He adds that the aircraft represents a transformative capability.

Offering twice the endurance of the Reaper and with a larger, 24m (79ft) wingspan, the new type is expected to carry MBDA Brimstone air-to-surface missiles and Raytheon Systems Paveway IV precision-guided bombs using six under-wing pylons.

The SkyGuardian uses an automatic take-off and landing system and satellite-controlled taxiing, with other enhanced features including lightning protection and anti-icing. General Atomics has already demonstrated a flight endurance of over 48h with the type.

However, its most significant advance is around planned certification to operate routinely in non-segregated airspace alongside commercial traffic.

“Protector is going to change how we look at remotely-piloted aircraft,” Gale says. “I think it is going to change European airspace – when we put detect and avoid in there, you suddenly reveal the limitations of the human [operator].”

The Ministry of Defence on 13 July announced a £93 million ($123 million) investment in infrastructure at Waddington to accommodate the future Protector fleet, including a new hangar. Fourteen of an expected 21 air vehicles are currently on order, but Gale expects this to increase over time.

“I think we will see that the utility for this aeroplane is so spectacular that we probably will feel the urge to look again at those figures,” he says. Potential further applications include operating in concert with the RAF’s Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, possibly while carrying a maritime search radar, plus supporting homeland security, coastal patrol and police operations.

Robert Walker, General Atomics’ senior director, strategic development, notes that the company’s internal investment in a SeaGuardian derivative – which has included flying with a Leonardo Seaspray 7500E radar – has drawn interest from India.

Separately, the company is hoping to be selected to supply the US Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker, facing competition from Boeing and Lockheed Martin. A decision could come as soon as mid-August.

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Airline Strategy Awards recognise Air Canada and AerCap chiefs

Air Canada boss Calin Rovinescu and Aengus Kelly, who runs leasing giant AerCap, took away the top prizes at the Airline Strategy Awards ceremony in London on 15 July.

Rovinescu was presented with this year’s Executive Leadership award, while Kelly received the Flight Airline Business award.

Sunday’s event, which took place at the Honourable Artillery Company in central London, was the 17th running of the awards. The annual event is organised by Flight Airline Business magazine in partnership with human-capital solutions specialist Korn Ferry.

Rovinescu was recognised for his strong and unwavering leadership of Air Canada, where he devised a complex restructuring plan which has delivered huge success for the airline. Rovinescu’s actions reversed the losses of a decade ago, with Air Canada having been profitable in the last six years. In 2017, the airline’s net profit more than doubled to just over C$2 billion ($1.5 billion).

“Rovinescu’s comprehensive, multidimensional turnaround programme brought Air Canada back from the brink and has transformed the carrier into a success story that is much admired by peers and competitors alike,” said Max Kingsley-Jones, executive director content at FlightGlobal and host of The Airline Strategy Awards.

The Flight Airline Business award recognised Kelly for his impressive track record at the head of AerCap, where he masterminded the takeover of ILFC and created the world’s largest leasing business.

“Kelly’s shrewd approach to business has ensured AerCap has gone from strength to strength since he took the helm in 2011,” said Kingsley-Jones. “He is a leasing leader that is hugely respected across the industry.”

Other winners included Ajay Singh, chairman and managing director of SpiceJet, for low-cost leadership; Aegean Airlines chief executive Dimitrios Gerogiannis for sector leadership; TAP Portugal and Azul for finance; Air New Zealand for marketing; and Singapore Airlines for network strategy.

“The airline industry is enjoying a healthy existence right now in an era of sustained profitability and stability,” says Kingsley-Jones. “But some airline management teams are still rising above their peers through clever strategies and innovative thinking.

“Since 2002, the Airline Strategy Awards have been established as the highest accolade in the recognition of the industry’s leaders and trendsetters, identifying those who are raising the bar the way they run their businesses. This year’s winners once again demonstrate how to deliver success at the highest level.”

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Airbus defence unit close to A400M export deal

After enduring a tough time with its A400M tactical transport, Airbus Defence & Space appears poised to secure its first new export order for the Atlas.

“The tide has turned now, with the [partner] nations using the aircraft in operational and humanitarian relief missions,” says Fernando Alonso, the company’s head of military aircraft.

“Now is the right time to go for export,” he told FlightGlobal at the Royal International Air Tattoo on 13 July. “We have some export campaigns active: one of them is very active, and I think that in the next months we can probably sign a first contract.”

Alonso will not identify the potential buyer, but the programme’s strongest recent signal of interest came in March, when Jakarta’s state-owned Indonesia Trading Company announced plans to acquire two A400Ms to ferry goods around the nation. The aircraft would be operated by Indonesian air force pilots, it said.

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The Atlas was developed for European partners Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the UK, which will take a combined 170 examples. Airbus’s only other success with the type so far has been with Malaysia, which has received four of the airlifters.

“The aeroplane deserves to be exported, there is a need for the aeroplane, and now is the time to go for it,” says Alonso, who notes that the company is receiving “very good support from the nations” in supporting its marketing efforts.

Airbus in early March announced an agreement with its A400M launch customers to slow output from 19 deliveries last year to producing eight per year from 2020. In addition to enabling it to stabilise the programme while completing development work on advanced capabilities, it said the step would safeguard production until 2030 and enable it to “pursue export opportunities”.

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CFM comfortably ahead in A320neo engine race

CFM International is convincingly winning the two-horse race to power Airbus A320neo-family aircraft. More than 2,500 of the re-engined narrowbodies on order are set to have engines from the GE Aviation and Safran joint venture, compared with just over 1,800 for rival Pratt & Whitney.

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Bombardier looks to Asia for regional aircraft boom

Bombardier’s regional aircraft focus seems poised to shift more toward Asia and other developing markets in the coming years, in acknowledgement of aviation’s advancements in those regions and the relative maturity of the North American market.

The manufacturer also expects to continue making incremental improvements to its regional aircraft products – which include CRJs and Q400s – rather than immediately embarking on larger development projects, says Bombardier president of commercial aircraft Fred Cromer.

“The products will continue to evolve. I don’t think it’s going to be a step change; it’s more incremental,” Cromer tells FlightGlobal. He notes Bombardier is now selling CRJs with its new Atmosphere cabin, which has larger overhead bins and a cabin designed to feel more spacious.

Cromer’s was speaking on the eve of the Farnborough air show and just weeks after Bombardier returned to its regional aircraft roots after handing majority ownership of CSeries – now called the A220 – to Airbus.

With the Airbus deal complete, Bombardier has put its full weight back behind the regional aircraft that made the company famous. And Cromer sees developing markets like China as target-rich.

“There’s a real need to evolve aviation in China… which is going to create opportunity for regional aircraft,” Cromer says. Bombardier expects carriers in China will jump on the regional aircraft bandwagon much as North American airlines did decades ago.

He notes China has instituted polices designed to promote regional commercial aviation. Carriers elsewhere in Asia, and in Africa and India, will also drive much of the predicted demand, he adds, noting Bombardier recently sold aircraft to carriers like Ethiopian Airlines, SpiceJet and Philippines Airlines.

“Over the next five or 10 years, you will see… these airlines and these regions develop more feed into the infrastructure that they are building. To us that’s a big opportunity,” says Cromer.

Airlines in China will need 900 aircraft with 60-100 seats in the next 20 years, while carriers elsewhere in Asia and Oceania will need another 900 such aircraft, according to Bombardier’s most-recent fleet forecast.

Bombardier pegs worldwide, 20-year demand for 60- to 100-seat aircraft at 5,750 units.

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Cargo operators foresee e-commerce uplift

This year’s Farnborough air show dawns on an air freight sector suffering a bit of a hangover following a banner year in 2017.

Not to say the business is in downturn – far from it.

But air cargo did not arrive in 2018 with momentum anywhere near that which recently buoyed the business out of a years-long downturn.

Though the sector has returned to single-digit growth, cargo players still see significant opportunity ahead, particularly thanks to e-commerce.

At the air show they are highlighting some of the world’s largest cargo aircraft and discussing, at an on-site symposium, the future of the air freight industry.

The symposium runs on 17-18 July, and gives attendees an opportunity to hear from industry watchers and executives from several cargo airlines.

On static display at Farnborough’s “Cargo Village” will be an Antonov An-124 operated by Russian cargo carrier Volga-Dnepr Airlines (below) and a Boeing 747-8F operated by CargoLogicAir (second photo), a UK-based carrier with ownership links to Volga-Dnepr.

“This is a great opportunity, with both the air show and the conference… to profile our capabilities,” says David Kerr, chief executive of CargoLogicAir. “We are a relatively new carrier. Our emergence represents a positive sign in the investment in the wider cargo industry, and particularly in the UK.”

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Volga-Dnepr’s vice-president of sales and marketing Robert van de Weg declares the group to be “bullish”, adding: “We believe there will be continuous opportunity in general because the supply and demand dynamics in the last 10 years have been out of whack.”

Indeed, the air freight market suffered during most of the last decade, with the slowdown starting around 2007 at the dawn of the global economic downturn. Between then and 2015, world air cargo traffic grew an average of just 1.5% annually, according to Boeing’s World Air Cargo Forecast.

Then 2017 brought a major turnaround, with demand, as measured in freight tonne-kilometres (FTKs), surging 9% year-over-year, according to IATA’s economic reports. Yields also climbed.

But demand has since slowed, climbing 5.1% year-over-year in 2018 through April, IATA’s most-recent report indicates. Growth in March slipped to just 1.7%, the slowest rate in 22 months.

IATA projects that full-year 2018 demand will be up about 4% from 2017.

“It’s not as if things are going to fall off a cliff,” says IATA senior economist David Oxley. Growth of 4% is not inconsequential, especially considering that it comes atop last year’s expansion, he adds.

Passenger airlines have reported a similar slowdown.

After a strong 2017 and admirable start to 2018, United Airlines reported that cargo volume, as measured in cargo tonne-miles, grew only 1.6% year-over-year in May. Delta Air Lines’ cargo volume slowed to 2.3% the same month, the carrier reported.

The strength of 2017 partly reflected a decline in the inventory-to-sales ratio, which indicates how many months’ worth of stock companies have on their shelves. A declining ratio reflects a pick-up in sales, which results in more orders and greater demand for air freight, says Oxley.

But the inventory-to-sales ratio in the USA increased early this year, IATA notes. In addition, new export orders declined in April to the lowest level since October 2016, suggesting a weakening in world trade growth, it adds.

“Certainly, the very strong tailwinds that are propelling the industry seem to have weakened a lot,” Oxley says.

CargoLogicAir’s Kerr says demand this year has not been across the board but, rather, “fragmented” across industries and geographies. Shipping demand has declined for some items, like retail products, but increased for others, like some high-tech products, Kerr says.

Despite mixed results, freight airlines worldwide see big upside in shipments of e-commerce products.

E-commerce is “clearly driving demand in general, particularly in the last three to four months of the year,” van de Weg says. “The change of consumer behavior has increased the need for speed, and air freight has benefited.”

That view has proponents across the Atlantic.

“E-commerce is by far the fastest-growing segment globally,” Michael Steen, chief commercial officer at US-based Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, said on 25 June.

Atlas has been at the forefront of the e-commerce boom, having signed a deal to operate 20 767 Freighters for Amazon. Fifteen of those aircraft were in service in late June, and Atlas expects to deploy all 20 by year-end.

It projects that e-commerce sales will grow at an average rate of 22.5% annually between 2011 and 2021.

“We are engaged in discussions with several other e-commerce customers, and I am confident we will be able to expand on other opportunities,” Steen says.

But executives warn that longer-term expansion could be hindered by a lack of aircraft. Cargo carriers worldwide have in recent years been snapping up used 767s and converting those aircraft to freighters, while Boeing has landed some sales for new 767Fs, 777Fs and 747-8Fs.

But insiders say demand for additional freighters is outstripping supply, and the future of the 747-8F – seen by many airlines as the reigning king of long-distance heavy lifting – remains in question.

“We are concerned about the continuation of the -8 production line because it’s a very good airplane,” says Kerr. “It’s doing a great job for us and we are concerned about the supply of large cargo freighters in general.”

A CargoLogicAir Boeing 747-8 Freighter

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Boeing currently has back orders for 24 747-8s, nearly all being freighter versions destined for UPS Airlines. The backlog brings production only into 2022, Flight Fleets Analyzer shows.

“The ultimate question is: how long will the production line still be open for, and how many orders can Boeing still accommodate?” van de Weg says. “We believe still there’s a long-term requirement for the 747-8.”

Atlas estimates that airlines worldwide will need an average 25 large-body freighters and 22 medium-body freighters annually for the next 19 years.

That equates to about 920 aircraft by 2036, or 47 new aircraft annually – roughly double the current freighter production rate.

“If you look at the current freight production capabilities at the large OEMs, it will be impossible to reach such levels unless there is a significant increase in production capacity,” says Atlas’s Steen.

The cargo industry sees other threats, such as a protectionist sentiment in many countries (the USA and UK, notably) and trade tariffs.

But executives remain optimistic.

“There are always clouds on the horizon,” says van de Weg. “The fundamentals are currently very strong.”

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UK receives 20th Atlas as testing continues

The UK Royal Air Force has received its 20th of an eventual 22 A400M Atlas transports from Airbus Defence & Space, while test flights of additional capabilities continue.

Announcing the delivery milestone on 13 July, the service said the airlifter’s arrival at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire “coincided with crucial trials to test Atlas’s ability to deliver cargo by parachute and undergo air-to-air refuelling”.

The recent test activities included using an RAF aircraft to release 1t containers in sequence over the Salisbury Plain training area in Wiltshire, as part of an ongoing process to prove the Atlas’s air drop capabilities.

Airbus and UK personnel have, meanwhile, advanced air-to-air refuelling trials involving a “Grizzly” test aircraft and an RAF A330 Voyager, during sorties conducted near the company’s Seville site in Spain. This involved the Atlas receiving fuel “over a wide range of altitudes and air speeds”.

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“The results from both trials are now being analysed, with a view to delivering operational clearances,” the RAF says.

“We will continue to work hand-in-hand with Airbus and trials personnel to ensure that this fleet of world-leading aircraft is fully delivered and qualified for UK operations,” says Adrian Baguley, director air support at the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Equipment & Support organisation.

The RAF expects to take delivery of its remaining two A400Ms “by the early 2020s”.

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UK continues to punch above its weight in global aerospace

When the first Farnborough air show took place in 1948, the UK was a very different place. Germany’s defeat had left Britons buoyant but resigned to the fact that the cost of that conflict had plunged the country into deep depression.

However, the exploits of the Royal Air Force and an industry that had created formidable fighting machines from the Spitfire to the Lancaster bomber gave the government and aerospace chiefs faith that the UK could remain a pace-setter in a world that would soon enter an age of jet-powered long-haul travel, and require more advanced warplanes and technologies to counter a very different military threat.

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Back then, the Farnborough air show was run by the Society of British Aircraft Constructors – a predecessor of ADS – and open only to UK exhibitors. There were enough of them – airframers and their nationally based supply chains – to create a showcase that attracted a huge international audience.

At a time of tight resources, the government played a key role in directing investment and research and development priorities, most obviously on the military side, but also in terms of commercial programmes. However, with the industries in France and Germany decimated by the war, the UK and the USA remained the world’s dominant aircraft producers.


The 70 years since have seen a whole lot of history: the Cold War, the revival of Germany and France, the space race, the European project, the fall of Communism, the rise of Asia. By the 21st century, the UK had gone from having half a dozen or more aircraft builders to just two – and none on the commercial side, if you do not count tiny Britten-Norman.

Aside from BAE Systems and engine-maker Rolls-Royce, much of the UK’s major aerospace and defence footprint was by the early 2000s foreign owned or controlled, by the likes of Airbus, Leonardo, Thales, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, United Technologies, Safran and General Electric.

While some might bemoan the fact that the family silver has progressively been sold overseas, others welcome that formidable inward investment, ensuring the industry remains the world’s second-largest by sales.

According to ADS, UK-based aerospace concerns turn over £35 billion ($46 billion) – with exports accounting for six-sevenths of that total – employ 123,000 directly, and have grown by almost 40% since 2012. From the plant in Broughton that produces every Airbus wing to hundreds of small and medium-sized enterprises, the UK still punches well above its weight in aerospace relative to the size of its economy.

They would also argue that, while overseas shareholders – and even, in some cases, governments – may control the industry’s purse strings, intellectual property remains firmly in the UK, either through regulations (in the case of some sensitive military technologies) or practice.


British engineers have specialised in designing wings for decades – with university research labs generating much of the IP – and that is why Airbus and Bombardier have invested hundreds of millions in centres of excellence in Bristol, Broughton and Belfast.

However, another B-word arguably threatens that state of affairs. In June, Airbus warned that a failure by the UK government to secure a friction-free deal with the EU post Brexit in 2019 could endanger its investments in the UK. Just before the Farnborough air show, ADS chief executive Paul Everitt said a “worst case, no deal” scenario – where there is no arrangement for goods and services to cross the English Channel without checks and possible tariffs – would be “chaotic” for UK industry.

Even a settlement that leaves the country as a more expensive place to do business could “diminish our ability to attract investment”, he says, although the impact might not be felt overnight. “Aerospace and defence are long-term businesses. When a big decision comes along – a new aircraft or some other major investment – we will not be so well placed. These are high-value activities that we treasure as a country that are likely to go somewhere else,” he adds.

That said, while the Airbus UK production process is deeply entwined with the company’s facilities in France, Germany and Spain, the industry is not solely dependent on trade with the EU. Boeing – which has very little direct industrial investment in the UK – buys components from dozens of British companies, spending £2.1 billion here in 2016.

Bombardier CSeries (now Airbus owned) composite wings are shipped from Belfast to Montreal. US implants owned by the likes of Raytheon and United Technologies produce systems, weapons and components for UK military aircraft that are also exported.

Major UK players such as BAE, aerostructures specialist GKN and aircraft systems supplier Meggitt also have sizeable investments overseas, including in the USA, where BAE is large enough to count as a prime contractor. Martin-Baker is one of a tiny handful of firms worldwide that make ejection seats for military aircraft. Rolls-Royce, one of the world’s three big engine makers, makes most of its revenues on the commercial side from supporting a global fleet of installed engines.

Another area where ADS has concerns about the country’s industrial future is the next-generation fighter. The UK is both an operator of the Lockheed Martin F-35 – in which BAE is a programme partner – and, through BAE, a shareholder in the four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon. However, unlike France, where Dassault has retained its capabilities to design and build its own “4.5”-generation fighter in the Rafale, it is unclear whether BAE would be able to go it alone with a successor to the Typhoon that would be required from the 2040s.


The UK government – which under former Prime Minister David Cameron signed a defence co-operation pact with France in 2010 that could be endangered by Brexit – plans to unveil a combat air strategy. ADS says the strategy needs to provide the investment to retain an independent combat air capability in the UK, and deliver an aircraft that could be supported by exports. Necessary steps, suggests the trade body, include establishing a “high-value” design centre. The combat air sector currently contributes to the UK economy £8.3 billion in turnover and creates 31,000 jobs, says ADS.

With 29 country pavilions and 48 countries represented as exhibitors this year, the modern Farnborough air show is more of a global aerospace gathering than the shop window for the UK industry it was until 40 or 50 years ago.

However, throughout the halls and chalets, home-grown companies will be making their presence felt. There may never be another new all-British aircraft in the display, but most of the types represented at the show will have a significant contribution from the country’s aerospace sector beneath the skin. Like the show itself, UK industry is more international than ever.

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Air Italy 737 Max 8 makes debut

New Qatar Airways joint-venture carrier Air Italy is showing off its striking branding at Farnborough on its latest Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft.

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The airline, which was formerly Meridiana, was unveiled in February after Qatar Airways concluded a transaction for a 49% stake in the carrier. The carrier is introducing three 737 Max 8s along with five Airbus A330-200s leased from Qatar Airways.

Flights under the new name commenced on 1 March, operated with 737s and Boeing 767s still bearing Meridiana’s livery. Those aircraft are being phased out as the leased A330s and 737 enter the fleet.

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Philippine Airlines receives first A350-900

Airbus handed over the first of six A350-900s to Philippine Airlines (PAL) at a ceremony today in Toulouse. The carrier becomes the 19th airline to take delivery of the Airbus big-twin.

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PAL will operate its A350s from its Manila base mainly on nonstop services to Europe and North America, including to New York. Airbus says that the New York route, which has a distance of over 8,000nm (14,800km), previously required a technical stop in Vancouver on the return trip.

PAL’s A350-900s feature a three-class layout seating 295 passengers, including 30 in business class, 24 in premium economy and 241 in the economy cabin.

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“The arrival of the A350 XWB will see PAL offer new levels of comfort on our long-haul flights,” says PAL president Jaime Bautista (pictured above centre at the delivery). “We believe that the A350 will be a game changer for PAL as we compete with the best in the premium long-haul market.”

By the end of June, Airbus had delivered 182 A350s to 19 airlines worldwide.

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