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Boeing’s Starliner faces one more challenge as it returns to Earth

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Boeing and NASA teams participate in a mission dress rehearsal to prepare for the landing of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in White Sands, New Mexico
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Boeing’s Starliner capsule is readying to return to Earth on Wednesday in the final step of a key test flight to prove itself worthy of providing rides for NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

The spaceship is scheduled to autonomously undock at 2:36 pm Eastern Time (1836 GMT) and touch down in New Mexico just over four hours later, at 2249 GMT, wrapping up a six-day mission crucial to restoring Boeing’s reputation after past failures.

Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) is the last hurdle for Starliner to clear before it carries humans in another test flight that could take place by the end of this year.

Starliner rendezvoused with the ISS on Friday, a day after blasting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Over the weekend, astronauts living aboard the research platform opened the hatch and “greeted” the capsule’s sole passenger: Rosie the Rocketeer, a mannequin equipped with sensors to understand what human crew would have experienced in the journey. 

The mission hasn’t been without its hiccups. These include propulsion problems early on Starliner’s journey that saw two thrusters responsible for placing it in a stable orbit failing, though officials insisted there was plenty of redundancy built into the system.

On the day of docking, the vessel missed its scheduled contact time by more than an hour, after a ring responsible for latching on to the station failed to deploy correctly. Engineers had to retract the ring then pop it out again before it worked the second time.

Still, the glitches are little compared to the troubles Starliner saw during its first test launch, back in 2019, when one software bug caused it to burn too much fuel to reach its destination, and another almost meant that the vehicle was destroyed during re-entry.

The second error was caught in time to upload a patch, and the vessel was able to achieve a gentle landing, slowed by its enormous parachutes, at White Sands Space Harbor — the same spaceport where Space Shuttles once launched, and where Starliner is once more expected for touchdown.

Boeing and NASA also tried to launch Starliner in August 2021, but the capsule was rolled back from the launchpad to address sticky valves that weren’t opening as they should and the ship was eventually sent back to the factory for fixes.

NASA is looking to certify Starliner as a second “taxi” service for its astronauts to the space station — a role that Elon Musk’s SpaceX has provided since succeeding in a test mission for its Dragon capsule in 2020.

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US recession would be ‘necessary price’ to defeat inflation: IMF chief

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IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva said the US must fight inflation, even if that means some pain in the short term
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With inflation rising sharply, and the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, the United States is facing an increased risk of a downturn, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said Friday.

But any temporary pain caused by a recession would be “a necessary price to pay” to defeat damaging inflation, she said.

The Washington-based crisis lender again slashed its US growth forecast to 2.9 percent, from the 3.7 percent forecast in April, which was cut from the rate predicted at the start of the year.

The world’s largest economy rebounded strongly from the pandemic downturn, but that has come with “unwelcome side effects” of rising prices, Georgieva said.

While the IMF is confident the Fed’s rate hikes will bring down inflation, “We are conscious that there is a narrowing path to avoiding a recession,” she said in a statement.

The Fed last week implemented the biggest increase in its benchmark lending rate in nearly 30 years, as part of its aggressive effort to quell inflation that is at a four-decade high and squeezing American families struggling with rising prices for gasoline, food and housing.

The US economy already was seeing strong demand clashing with supply snarls due to pandemic lockdowns in China and elsewhere, when Russia invaded Ukraine, which has intensified the inflationary pressures.

For 2023, growth is expected to slow to 1.7 percent, but “narrowly avoid” a recession, according to the annual review of the US economy, known as the Article IV consultation.

The IMF chief said the battle against inflation must be the “top priority” despite the impact a US slowdown might have on the global economy.

“Success over time will be beneficial for global growth, but some pain to get to that success can be a necessary price to pay,” she said in response to a question from AFP.

Georgieva met with US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Fed Chair Jerome Powell and the officials “left no doubt as to their commitment to bring inflation back down.”

Nigel Chalk, deputy chief of the IMF’s Western Hemisphere division, said any US recession is likely to be short-lived, given the stockpile of savings and strong business and household balance sheets, and the strong labor market.

“All of those things would help support the economy,” he said. “So if it was hit by negative shock, it should pass relatively quickly and have a relatively quick recovery afterwards.”

– Roll back tariffs –

The IMF also urged Washington to remove punitive trade duties imposed under former president Donald Trump — something President Joe Biden said he is considering and Yellen appears to favor.

“Especially at a time when inflation is high and supply chains are strained… we can see clear benefits in rolling back the tariffs that were introduced over the last 5 years,” Georgieva said in a statement.

However, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has said the steep tariffs on China offer negotiating “leverage” with Beijing which she is reluctant to give up.

The IMF report said removing tariffs on steel, aluminum, and a range of products from China “would support growth and help reduce inflation.”

The rapid US recovery, helped by low interest rates and hefty government aid, had domestic benefits, reducing poverty and creating more than 8.5 million jobs since the end of 2020, according to the IMF analysis. 

It also offered a boost to the pandemic-ravaged global economy, but fund economists cautioned that it will be “tricky” to avoid recession.

“The stakes are clearly high. Misjudging the policy mix — in either direction — will result in sizable economic costs at home and negative outward spillovers to the global economy.”

However, the report pushed back against comparisons to the inflationary era of the 1980s, noting the economy and the central bank actions are “markedly different.”

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Global trade unions urge UK to resolve rail strike row

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Members of the RMT rail union have scheduled three strikes this week in a dispute over pay, pensions and conditions
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International transport trade unions on Friday urged London to negotiate a swift end to Britain’s biggest rail strike in over 30 years, on the eve of the latest walkout.

More than 100 unions have written an open letter to UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps calling on him to help settle the bitter row over pay, as surging inflation sparks growing industrial unrest.

The letter, coordinated by the International Transport Workers’ Federation, comes one day before the third of this week’s three rail strikes.

“We are writing to call on you to meet with the transport unions to discuss rail workers’ concerns and enable the unions to reach a negotiated settlement to the disputes with rail employers,” the letter read.

And it called upon the government to “defend rail workers’ jobs, pay, conditions and pensions”.

Shapps has so far refused to get involved in negotiations, arguing that they should be held between workers’ trade unions, Network Rail and private-sector railway operating firms.

The letter was signed by unions from across the world, including Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East.

“We are shocked that … the UK government is set to impose cuts to railway services and scrap infrastructure projects at exactly the time when it should be investing, expanding and promoting public transport, especially the railways to help reduce global emissions from transport,” the letter continued.

“We call on you to do what’s right by these workers and their communities, and call on you to meet urgently with the transport unions.”

The RMT rail union insists strikes are necessary as wages have failed to keep pace with UK inflation, which has hit a 40-year high and is on course to keep rising.

The RMT also accuses Shapps of having “wrecked” negotiations by not allowing Network Rail to withdraw a letter threatening redundancies of 2,900 RMT members.

However, Shapps has called that “a total lie”.

Rail staff went on strike on Tuesday and Thursday — and are also set to do so on Saturday in the absence of a deal.

A Department for Transport spokesperson denied that the government had sought to obstruct any agreement.

“It is entirely false to claim the government is blocking negotiations,” the spokesperson stated.

“We have said from the outset we urge the unions and industry to agree a deal that is fair for railway staff, passengers and taxpayers.”

Separately, British Airways workers at London’s Heathrow airport voted on Thursday to strike over pay.

Members of the GMB and Unite trade unions overwhelmingly backed action and warned of a “summer of strikes” as the nation’s cost-of-living crisis worsens.

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Ryanair, Brussels Airlines strikes disrupt Europe air travel

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Ryanair cabin crew unions in Spain, Portugal and Belgium called a three-day strike starting on Friday, and in Italy and France on Saturday
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Strikes by staff at Ryanair and Brussels Airlines over pay and working conditions on Friday forced the cancelation of dozens of flights in Europe as the busy summer travel season gets underway.

The strikes are adding more headaches to passengers and the aviation sector, which has struggled with staff shortages as it struggle to recruit people after massive layoffs during the Covid pandemic.

Ryanair cabin crew unions in Spain, Portugal and Belgium called a three-day strike starting on Friday, and in Italy and France on Saturday.

The biggest impact was felt in Belgium, where the work stoppage led Europe’s biggest budget airline to cancel 127 flights to and from Charleroi airport near Brussels between Friday and Sunday.

Ryanair could only guarantee 30-40 percent of its scheduled flights at the airport, said a spokeswoman for Brussels South Charleroi Airport.

The situation in Belgium was further complicated by a three-day strike by staff at Brussels Airlines, a unit of German airline Lufthansa, which began on Thursday.

The company has cancelled 315 flights to and from Brussels’ international airport during the three-day strike.

The impact of the Ryanair strike was more limited in Portugal, where only two flights we cancelled on Friday morning, according to the SNPVAC union behind the walkout in the country.

It expects the strike to gain force later in the day.

In Spain, where Ryanair employs 1,900 people, no flights we cancelled except those heading to Belgium.

“We didn’t even know there was a strike…we didn’t have any problem at all,” said Manuel Carrion, a Spanish passenger with a Ryanair flight at Madrid airport.

Spain’s transport ministry on Thursday ordered Ryanair to operate 73 percent to 82 percent of flights over the strike period to maintain minimum services.

It argued there needs to be a balance between the “right to strike” and the “interest of travellers”.

– Threats –

But unions said Ryanair had gone beyond what was required and forced staff to maintain 100 percent of flights. Unions said they would take Ryanair to court as a result.

“The company informed staff that all flights were subject to the minimum service, and threated them with disciplinary action,” Ernesto Iglesias of local USO told reporters at Madrid airport.

The airline was not “respecting the law,” he added.

Ryanair cabin crew unions in Spain have called another strike from June 30 to July 2.

A strike on the weekend of June 12 and 13 already prompted the cancellation of about 40 Ryanair flights in France, or about a quarter of the total.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has been dismissive of the strikes, saying earlier this month that most of the company’s flights “will continue to operate even if there is a strike in Spain by some Mickey Mouse union or if the Belgian cabin crew unions want to go on strike.”

– ‘Pushed to the brink’ –

Ryanair’s low-cost rival easyJet also faces nine days of strikes on different days in July at the Barcelona, Malaga and Palma de Mallorca airports.

British Airways workers at London’s Heathrow airport have voted to strike over pay as the cost-of-living crisis worsens in the UK, though no dates were set yet.

The strikes come as air travel has rebounded since Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted.

But the staff shortages have forced airlines to cancel flights, with German carrier Lufthansa cancelling more than 3,000 of them during the summer holidays.

On Monday, the European Transport Workers’ Federation called “on passengers not to blame the workers for the disasters in the airports, the cancelled flights, the long queues and longer time for check-ins, and lost luggage or delays caused by decades of corporate greed and a removal of decent jobs in the sector.”

The Federation said it expects “the chaos the aviation sector is currently facing will only grow over the summer as workers are pushed to the brink.”

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