A few short months ago most planes were full, airlines were raking in profits, airports were growiang and aircraft were rolling off assembly lines at a record clip. Today it’s a different picture. As monocle went to press, thousands of planes were parked, many terminals shuttered (or reduced to cargo only) and most flight crews grounded.
Some say that pandemics act as accelerators – and that acceleration might be especially pronounced for the aviation industry. Its $570bn (€528bn) annual passenger revenue is likely to be cut by more than half this year and 25 million aerospace and aviation jobs are at risk.The effects will be far-reaching: smaller airlines will fold (some, including Flybe and Germanwings, already have), cabin designs will be reconsidered, airports will rethink expansion plans and supply chains will need to be reconfigured.
“The full impact of coronavirus is only just becoming apparent,” says Michael Gill, executive director of the Geneva-based AirTransport Action Group (atag), an industry association promoting sustainable growth. “Aviation has not seen a shock like this in its history and the path out of it is not clear.” Overnight, the industry’s future has gone from being a safe bet to up in the air – or not, as it were.
If you looked hard though, the cracks were showing even before the pandemic. The virus is like a sudden decompression in an aircraft that already needed serious maintenance. It’s bad but also represents an opportunity for a refocusing of priorities, a chance to recognise the value of aviation and to correct its course.
During the past decade many airlines have piled on ever more flights and packed ever more seats onto their aircraft, pushing a kind of mass-tourism race to the bottom, and then doing stock “buybacks” instead of raising employee salaries; something that has been the subject of increasing criticism as airlines plead for billions in government bailouts. Stressed passengers hated the experience, while harried flight attendants hated their passengers and employers in equal measure.
Meanwhile, aviation emissions had taken centre stage and started to push people away from flying in Europe, even as in places such as Asia the number of air passengers has continued its meteoric – some would say unsustainable – rise. In ordinary times, dozens of flights make the 85-minute journey between London’s various airports and Amsterdam’s Schiphol every day. Is that necessary? Bottom-of-the-barrel budget air travel and the growth-at-all-costs attitude that’s associated with aviation hasn’t been good for its reputation – or the planet.
So how do we move on from here? Physical-distancing measures on flights, mainly in the form of blocked middle seats, are only viable if planes are flying mostly empty or carriers can charge enough to make up for that lost income. Instead, we’re likely to see a highly visible sanitising of cabins, the wearing of masks onboard and increased screening for illness and symptoms in airports. Passengers might also reconsider what they ought to be entitled to and perhaps push national carriers and other premium airlines that have recently lurched towards the “stack ’em high” motto of cheaper operators, becoming low-cost carriers in everything but name. The canny ones can work to restore passenger dignity by taking out some seats, creating a more comfortable environment on board, offering some things for free and, yes, charging a little more for a better product. Some marketing advice: no one should pay for a cup of tea on British Airways, for example.
Most importantly, this mass grounding has made us realise that we want and need to fly; to see friends, family and clients in person, not just on our screens. Airplanes offer a freedom to be cherished.
“The coronavirus [pandemic] is making it clear that aviation brings a lot of social and economic benefits,” says Topi Manner, ceo of Finland’s national carrier, Finnair. “This situation has shown how connected our world is.The need to travel is such a fundamental part of how we live in the modern world. And it is also an important part of how the world’s societies and economies function. I think we are all feeling that now, at both a personal and a professional level.”
As airlines struggle, manufacturers and their suppliers will too and we’re likely to see a string of cancelled and deferred orders. No one will be spared pain but it will be especially brutal for industry giant Boeing, which is already smarting after rushing out the faulty 737Max, which has been linked to accidents that caused hundreds of deaths in two separate crashes, leading to an estimated €17.3bn hit to its bottom line. To conserve cash, Boeing backed out of a massive deal to purchase Brazilian outfit Embraer’s commercial jets division in late April. Perhaps it’s for the best: the firm would be wise to use this downtime to get back to the basics of producing safe aircraft and rebuilding some trust in its brand.
More generally, as cashflow dwindles, there might be a temptation for manufacturers to put off investment in new technology and projects. That would be a mistake.The industry has the opportunity to champion innovation and create new green jobs while helping to restore economic health across the board.That’s both the right thing to do and its best chance for a quick comeback. But to make it succeed, support will be needed. “We’re going to be working with governments to think about how a green recovery can prioritise sustainable aviation fuels, renewable energy for airports and investment in research into radical technology, such as electric aircraft,” says atag’s Gill. “We know we can achieve all of these things but we need help to get there.”
Airports have also had to reconsider their expansion and operational plans. Singapore’s Changi, for example, has decided to close one terminal for 18 months, which is an indication of how long it is expected to take for demand to return to pre-crisis levels. Then there are the hygiene concerns. “This episode has spurred us on to explore innovations to ensure the health and wellbeing of our passengers, visitors and airport staff,” says Jayson Goh, Changi’s managing director of airport operations. Possibilities for airports include “touchless” self-service kiosks, document-free security and immigration and pre-boarding coronavirus testing. Etihad is currently trialling kiosks in Abu Dhabi that monitor passengers’ vital signs as they check in, with the option to divert them to a medical inspection area if anything seems unusual.
The challenges facing aviation’s many stakeholders are daunting. But, throughout the supply chain, this is an opportunity for a reset. Many industry players had become blinded by hubris with regards to passenger satisfaction, employee welfare and the environment. This slowdown might push many to set their priorities straight. But it could also be a time to remind the world of what they miss about the magic and freedom of flight.
Monocle comment: The aviation industry has been the subject of much derision recently but with some smart changes it could still be a treasured part of our global economy.
About the author: Leigh is monocle’s transport correspondent who at this point would gladly take a Ryanair flight if it meant getting in the air again.