LONDON – In the UK, the European Aviation Group has donned a couple of its Airbus A340 with special tributes to the National Health Service (NHS) as a way of thanking those on the front-line during the Coronavirus pandemic.
The two aircraft in question, 9H-NHS and 9H-EAL are dubbed with the “Protect Our NHS” and “Thank You NHS” titles.
9H-NHS started its life in February 2006 with Virgin Atlantic Airways as G-VWIN with its name of “Lady Luck”.
The aircraft remained in service with the airline until it was stored in Tarbes Lourdes in January 2017.
The airplane then returned into service in July 2018 before being withdrawn from use in March 2020 and transferred to the likes of Prestwick in Scotland and Bournemouth in the UK.
European Aviation Group then brought the aircraft back into service earlier last month to begin cargo flights in the wake of the pandemic.
9H-EAL also started its life with Virgin Atlantic as G-VNAP in February 2005 with the name “Sleeping Beauty Rejuvenated”.
The aircraft remained with the airline until February 2018 and is known as the airframe that had its livery generated into a big message saying “a big Virgin Atlantic thank you”.
Around two years later, the aircraft was withdrawn from use and like with G-VWIN stored in Prestwick first before moving down to Bournemouth Airport and remaining with European Aviation Group.
Interview with Paul Stoddart
I got talking with Paul Stoddart, the Chairman of European Aviation Group, and asked him some questions about the aircraft as well as how the company has been dealing with the pandemic.
First question, tell us about European Aviation Group and what you do as a company?
“European has been going for the last 30 years. Our main source of income has been from supporting the spare parts industry. In the last few years obviously we have taken on a lot of the Airbus A340 family from the likes of Etihad Airways, Boeing of all people, China Eastern Airlines and finally Virgin Atlantic”.
On the A340s with the tributes to the NHS, what was the decision-making behind that to paint those aircraft in that livery?
“The idea behind the twin-tribute to the NHS was through a contract acquired through Crest Medical in Warrington to provide workers with personal protective equipment (PPE). It was a multi-flight contract starting with gloves from Kuala Lumpur as well as surgical gowns and other PPE from China. Thanking the NHS with a big love heart on the side of the aircraft was an idea from one of our engineers. Another A340 will be going into service with this similar of a theme as well”.
With these PPE flights taking place, how many per week have been taking place?
“We have been running flights every second day but later this month we will be operating daily. It’s been a big operation. Up to now, we have brought in 46.5 million pieces of PPE so the number is growing very much”.
Quite a lot of aviation enthusiasts have a fondness to the Airbus A340. So what is the plan for these aircraft after the PPE shipments have ended?
“Our plan is to carry on with delivering PPE with these aircraft up to the point where we have no more requirements for them, although I think we will be moving masks for quite some time.”
“We have contracts with other companies about operating cargo such as mail and others like Amazon who have a lot of light parcel freight which fits in our cabins perfectly”.
“Over the course of next year, we hope to do a full-conversion into cargo with the A340s, even without a freight door as carrying the cargo through the normal doors has been working effectively. We have been using cabin crew to unload the cargo”.
“We aim to have around half-a-dozen light freighters going into the future as I think there will be a lot of demand to come”.
Excellent, so the future of the A340 in your fleet remains very bright then?
“Well absolutely. Yes it may burn a lot of fuel but it carries enough cargo to offset that cost. With this aircraft being the longest in the world, it is also ideal for the level of freight we want to carry”.
Moving on to the pandemic a bit more, has this shifted your position as a company to more of a cargo business as opposed to passenger?
“A lot of businesses in the aviation industry has suffered massively over this pandemic. I think that the aviation industry that we knew of (last year) will be back to normal anytime soon”.
“We do feel that the cargo market is where we should be at the moment. We have several more aircraft we will be bringing in to cater for such demand. For example, we think that up to 10 aircraft in total could operate in configurations similar (to that of the A340)”.
Has there been any challenges with operating cargo during this pandemic and what kind of safety protocols are there in place?
“There has been a lot of logistical challenges. From our point of view, we started this off with one contract and it was only for one aircraft, six flights. We then realised that the demand was absolutely unbelievable.”
“Because of this, we quickly brought on our second aircraft and coming up, our third aircraft in this configuration”.
“The main challenge, therefore, was to bring an aircraft back into service through taking it out of storage, getting the seats out, getting it re-certified to fly, and more. On a plus, we have hired more cabin crew, pilots, and engineers to cater to this too. At least we are hiring and not firing”.
What sort of destinations are you serving because of the Coronavirus pandemic?
“Predominantly it is China and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. We have also gone to different destinations like Malta but we have been a bit specific in the destinations because of our base in Bournemouth”.
Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers?
“I am proud of each and every one of my employees because of what they have done to make this all happen. Many had been working seven days per week for a three-week period in order to get all of the legalities sorted out. One of our staff even said they never thought about having a day off.”
“It was definitely a set of stupidly long days but we got there and I must admit when the first flight took off, I shed a tear of happiness”.
Overall, it remains clear that European Aviation Group is an example of an industry business that has responded well to the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The switch from passenger to cargo conversion has proved to be very successful for the firm and has enhanced chances of profitability and survival as we enter this challenging pandemic.
As for the Airbus A340s, while new ones are not being produced, the current airframes are definitely being kept alive in what could be a new era for this aircraft type. The move to cargo.