The air transport industry is undergoing its most challenging period

The unique balance of positive and negative public opinion felt by the industry responsible for providing recreation, encouraging sociocultural exchange, and driving economic growth for billions across the globe has been upset.

Following years of growing unease over the industry’s contribution to climate change and touristification, aviation has been brought to its knees by the collapse in passenger traffic brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Passengers are wary of catching the virus while travelling or are barred from doing so entirely due to government travel restrictions.  

Passenger confidence, and with it, air traffic volume, will take a significant amount of time to recover. As a result, many airlines are sounding the alarm that they may soon be forced to close. This should not be allowed to happen:

  1. There is no other mode of transport that can provide fast long-haul journeys 
  2. Air transport supports 4.2% of all European employment and 4.2% of European GDP (Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders, 2018)
  3. The airline industry is critical to continuing global economic growth, social stability, cultural exchange, and maintaining peace between nations

A four-point plan to transform aviation  

There is still time for aviation to avoid collapse, then lay the foundations for a bright and robust future. The interconnected solutions are government intervention, sanitation, green development, and cross-industry collaboration – each accelerated.

Government support

While European air traffic has recovered from its April 2020 low point when traffic was 88% below expected levels, it is currently down by around 50%, and is unlikely to rise until well into 2021. Until a vaccine becomes widely available or the public learns to live with the virus, it is doubtful this figure will improve, necessitating continuing government monitoring and support. These state aid interventions remain vital, but must be conditional on:

  • Funds being directed to the most efficient, financially viable businesses – as opposed to not supporting airlines that were in trouble pre-pandemic
  • Investment being tied to governmental objectives – lower pollution, serving social needs, greater industry collaboration.

With this help, the best, most deserving airlines will be cushioned from the effects of the pandemic, allowing them time and space to adapt.

Set up a single, effective global sanitation standard

Even with a vaccine, COVID-19 is likely to be endemic within the human population for many years. Airlines cannot wait that long. They must rebuild trust as soon as possible – as well as build resilience in case a new pandemic surfaces.

To succeed, the air industry must emulate its approach to improving security when faced with the threat of terrorism in the 2000s. Airlines must come together to develop a single new standard and approach to sanitation that transcends today’s confusing and chaotic patchwork of national rules that dissuade passengers from flying, such as mandatory quarantines. This might involve developing sanitary checkpoints that measure passenger temperatures or check a ‘sanitary passport’ that contains medical information or contact tracing data.

Confidently embrace climate change mitigation through innovation

According to the ClimateWatch, the air transport industry is responsible for 1.9% of global CO₂ emissions  – road transport, on the other hand, is the source of 11.9% of global emissions. Aviation’s level of climate impact is currently less than the impact of all internet-connected devices.

Despite this, aviation has a very poor environmental image. Airport pollution and expansion are the subject of long-term protests, and the negative environmental effects of touristification are driving anti-tourism campaigns in countless cities. These negative perceptions are one of the reasons why, in the UK, just 6% of the public believes the air industry should receive government support.

The only way for airlines to improve their environmental credentials is through concerted action. They must:

  • Accelerate fleet transition to new, greener aircraft
  • Drive immediate environmental innovation by focusing on flight management levers they currently control, such as improving fuel efficiency in taxiing (EOTI/EOTO) continuous descent profiles, and direct routes by air traffic management
  • Cooperate with other air transport actors (aircraft manufacturers, airports, ground handlers, ATM) to develop new green-friendly Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) such an Electric Green Taxiing System (EGTS)
  • Revamp flight scheduling processes to target flexibility and agility to adjust frequencies and routes to lower demand, avoiding over-capacity situations
  • Develop operational excellence to enhance a more qualitive and smooth flight experience – due to likely carbon and environmental taxes putting pressure on future air fares

The steps above will allow airlines to repair their image, tackle environmental challenges, and solve future mobility needs. It is crucial that all efforts are firmly promoted and publicized by the industry.

Coordinate and collaborate with other transport operators

In last few years, climate change policy has begun to affect aviation activity, but this sort of action must accelerate post-pandemic.

This summer, following the terms of a state funding plan for Air France-KLM, French short-haul in-destination flights covering journeys that could be made by rail in under 2.5 hours were permanently banned – forcing a network revamp putting down around 40% of French domestic flights. Connecting and beyond-destination short-haul flights are however still permitted as part of the plan, however.

These sorts of state aid conditions, and this sort of policy – which will undoubtably gain popularity as climate change mitigation efforts accelerate – mean that airlines must learn to work efficiently alongside other transport operators, especially high-speed rail:

  • Governments must push to create strong public-private partnerships that allow airlines and rail operators to work and collaborate together
  • Airlines and rail operators must learn to communicate better with one another to build strong partnerships that encourage innovation and solve infrastructure deficiencies
  • Go beyond point-to-point traffic, looking how high-speed rail can also carry connecting passengers to airline hubs. This will involve solving specific challenges such as luggage management, booking data sharing, and providing a smooth transit experience at connecting points.

By working together, transport industries can create the efficient multi-modal transportation networks that will encourage the global recovery, then provide new opportunity.

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