Where Aviation Goes From Here
How to innovate through the storm and re-intercept the course
An airplane is off course 99% of the time.
It’s an analogy often cited in business lectures.
Flying is nothing if not a series of minor corrections. Some disruptions are small; others are severe. What is common, however, is the need to make adjustments to get back on track.
But sometimes we face a storm that necessitates a complete change in plans.
The COVID-19 pandemic has immobilized commercial air travel. Air traffic volumes are down up to 88 percent across Europe. The pace of cancelled services and grounded fleets is stomach-churning, with the most severe cuts happening in the last two weeks.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) projects airline losses in the billions. IATA’s Chief Economist is calling growth in the fourth quarter and a healthy 2021 a best-case scenario.
If you are reading this, there is a good chance you work in the aviation industry, are worried about your job security, or are already looking for work.
But with a pause comes the opportunity to build something better.
Looking Under the Hood
Despite this most crippling setback, an article in Forbes suggests the long-term prospects for aviation remain positive. The underlying framework of global integration, coupled with years of economic strength, propelled the aviation industry to unprecedented growth.
There is reason to believe it will continue to do so after the COVID-19 shock dissipates.
If that seems hard to believe, remember where we were a few months ago.
In June of 2018, Eurocontrol released a study painting a bleak picture of a different nature. The network was struggling to cope with record levels of traffic.
The study predicted that there would not be enough capacity for the 1.5 million flights, or 160 million passengers, expected by 2040.
Traffic growth had been running ahead of capacity in the European skies until COVID-19 dropped the curtain.
A Black Swan?
Commentators often cite Nassim Taleb at times of economic upheaval.
Pundits have explicitly invoked Taleb’s work, The Black Swan, as the sweeping impact of COVID-19 alters the socio-economic landscape. However, Taleb himself has refuted the notion that the virus was an unforeseeable event.
Pandemics have happened throughout history; we just don’t know when they are going to hit.
However, in his 2012 work, Antifragile, Taleb raised an underlying issue at the heart of the aviation industry.
Abundance is harder for us to handle than scarcity.
His subsequent paragraphs speak directly to the issues of automation on the flight deck and how it can weaken the resilience of the person at the controls.
According to Taleb, the good times can cause us to get complacent.
This time last year, Aviation was suffering from a curse of abundance. Pilot hiring could not keep pace with a demand that stretched capacity at several major airports.
However, Taleb offers a way out.
He writes that the only way to innovate is to first get into trouble. The energy released from our overreaction to setbacks is what drives innovation forward.
As the most optimistic projections see the skies returning to peak traffic levels over three to five years, the situation presents an opportunity for the industry to catch up with the growth that was poised to overwhelm air traffic management infrastructure in many parts of the world.
What will change
First, the aviation industry must regain financial stability. Once it does, companies can deploy capital to address issues that only come to light at times of high demand.
For air traffic management, this is an opportunity to catch up on staffing issues and on the technology required to increase capacity. It is also a chance to consider how electrification and urban air mobility may factor in the emerging paradigm.
The Swiss air traffic management company, skyguide, has started to train air traffic controllers remotely, a model that could allow the industry to prepare for future growth amid the pandemic.
For the airline industry, the traditional hub and spoke model will come up for review.
Zoom and other remote work solutions are integrated into the modern office, as more of us work from home. The thought of travelling all-day to a single meeting on the other side of the country could seem wasteful.
For this and other reasons, business travel will likely dip. On the other hand, one cannot explore the world through a laptop.
Thus, vacation travel will come back when people feel safe to move around again. Newer and more efficient aircraft will mean that the low-cost business model may find its way into even smaller markets.
In a memo to employees this week, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said.
“When the world emerges from the pandemic, the size of the commercial market and the types of products and services our customers want and need will likely be different.”
Ultra-efficient aircraft like the Q400 and A220 will change the economics of regional travel. Forbes predicts that narrow-body aircraft such as the Airbus 321 XLR could make long-haul routes viable where larger aircraft could not.
Maria Fiskerud, head of the Nordic Network for Electric Aviation, believes that as large manufactures like Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Boeing are pursuing hybrid technologies, electric aircraft will operate one-third of domestic flights in Sweden by 2030.
EHang, a Chinese aerial vehicle developer, is finding “new business opportunities from the crisis.” They recently tested flights by transporting medical supplies and staff from the ground to the top of a 25-floor hospital.
Aviation is sensitive to disruption, but when one looks at how far this industry has come, we cannot deny that air transportation is a robust facilitator of our way of life.
Like the economy, air traffic eventually bounces back.
Innovation will not make air travel obsolete. Commercial flying has been a benefactor of technology. It has and will continue to make aviation safer and more dependable.
As we pull out of this dive, the aviation professionals who have spent their time expanding their skills and knowledge of their craft will lead us to a healthier, more sustainable future.
The views and projections expressed in this article are those of the author, not of NAV CANADA.