Only four months ago I spoke at an aviation conference, challenging the audience of industry experts to think outside today’s models for airport design and operation in order to find solutions to meet 2050 net zero carbon targets. I highlighted that if today’s terminal life span is 30 (but often pushed out to 40) years then we should have started adapting at a global scale, over a decade ago. I argued therefore, that we needed a significant and radical step change to make up for the last ten years of lost innovation, foresight and opportunity.
Little did I know that three months later we would be facing the industry’s – indeed one of the world’s – greatest crisis and that the pace of necessary action was measured in hours, not decades. We are facing the fall-out from the spread of Covid-19, the invisible global pandemic causing very visible yet unimaginable health and economic impact across the planet.
At the time of writing this personal view it was the eve of the Ryanair Group cutting 80% of their flights1; on the other side of the world, Qantas grounding all of its fleet2; and, the US President agreeing that the stimulus package for the US airline industry “could look something like $50 billion”3.
Given the unparalleled nature of this crisis, it is difficult to say right now where we are in the industry’s business continuity cycle. The death toll continues to rise, there are large scale job losses, families are separated, and businesses are failing. Good news stories, however, are emerging: China reporting no new domestic transmissions of Covid-19 and promising breakthroughs in drug effectiveness. Buoyed by this positive news I am confident the industry will recover as it has done so from numerous “unprecedented” incidents, including 9/11 and Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption.
Whilst we wish for a speedy recovery, I return to the challenge that I referred to in my opening paragraph and ask, ‘is this the time to make the necessary step change?’ To quote Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber, one of transport’s greatest interrupters: “Desperation sometimes drives innovation”. What will the new normal look like?
Will we see changes in passengers’ travel experience expectations?
Should we see a consolidation of airlines, it is likely that pricing structures will change. Airlines have been appropriately generous in their flexibility during this crisis, but it may be that passengers are prepared to pay more in the future for guaranteed flexibility in travel arrangements. This might manifest as greater expectations for legacy-carrier standards of services and acceptance of the pricing accordingly.
At a micro-level, the lexicon and practice of ‘social distancing’ may be integrated into expectations of airport service (even if it cannot be achieved with today’s aircraft cabin design). Can the industry’s famous term of clean (sterile areas) and dirty (landside) become literal by leapfrogging to new systems and find innovative ways to avoid queuing? Will airports seek to build greater resilience into the existing assets and operations and less reliance on consequence management?
Many have argued the lack of resiliency in most countries’ health care systems has compounded the danger of Covid-19. That lack of resiliency has manifested publicly as calls for more hospital beds, personnel, personal protective equipment and ventilators. By contrast, aviation is considered a relatively resilient industry and, one could argue, mature in assessing (and managing where considered vital) resilience at the system and asset level. However, defining overall resilience of an entire asset, e.g. an airport in its entirety, continues to elude much of the industry, let alone applying a robust system to address inadequacies. I anticipate there will be increased focus on this across the industry and all aspects of future operational and capital investment will have a newfound, if yet to be defined, performance measure applied accordingly.
What lessons learned can the aviation industry adopt from the health industry?
The global collaboration of the health industry from investment in research to the sharing of crisis- management lessons learned has been applauded. I hope the aviation industry explores this further and recognises that removing red-tape and unlocking and targeting investment drives innovation. The step change in our efforts to meet carbon net zero targets feels a lot more achievable if the same approach to innovation and collaboration was enabled in the aviation industry.
As hard as it feels at this moment in time, given the rising Covid-19 death toll and it still being ‘early days’ in terms of the impact on the aviation industry, I encourage the aviation community to look for opportunities to drive innovation and apply lessons learned to create the new ‘normal’. It is appropriate that our resources and focus is on the present, given the urgency of the crisis. However, the industry continues to face big challenges, including our continued commitment to net zero carbon. It may be that this crisis creates opportunities to make the step changes necessary to deliver on those sustainability commitments.
Stacey Peel is the Aviation Security Global Lead for Arup, based in the UK.
- Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing, 18 March 2020.