The Pandemic: Accelerating Change
The Aviation Industry has overcome many challenges. It was in the late 1960s when aviation noise became a public issue. Since then, governments worldwide have applied legislative controls, challenging the industry to be quieter. As a result, aircraft designers, manufacturers and airlines developed quieter aircraft and improved operational processes. The creation and implementation of modern high-bypass turbofan engines, for example, which were quieter than the turbojets and low-bypass turbofans of the 1960s. Many airports started to apply restrictions in order to reduce noise exposure at night, and the implementation of different satellite-based navigation systems has allowed the industry to optimise routes according to the flight path. Noise was a challenge the industry overcame and continues to address.
Decades have passed and the challenges of the industry have changed. Before the current pandemic, airlines had been fighting a different force against flying. A study by the Air Transport Action Group found that aviation accounts for 12% of all carbon dioxide emissions from transport; a return flight from London to Los Angeles creates 1,650Kg of carbon dioxide, more than the average person in Colombia or the Philippines generates in a year (Kommenda, 2019).
Airlines started to consider changing their traditional “Hub and Spoke System”, based on gathering passengers from non-hub cities at a hub airport then taking them to another hub airport. This model generates economies of scale by allowing airlines to serve (via an intermediate connection) pairs of cities that could not be economically served non-stop. This model requires wide-body planes such as the Boeing 747 or the Airbus A380, which can carry up to 868 people and have bigger fuel consumption and indeed larger carbon emissions than smaller airplanes.
A closer look at the current situation might reveal that the pandemic is not a completely new problem. Instead, it is pushing the industry to act quicker in order to thrive. For example, before the pandemic Emirates decided not to buy any more Airbus A380s and in the summer British Airways retired its entire 747 fleet, following the paths of Air France, Delta and United.
These decisions provide a glimpse of what the future will look like. Carriers will prefer single-aisle aircraft in order to provide point-to-point flights. While the threat of the virus remains, nobody wants to spend longer than necessary in connecting flights or layover airports.
In the post-Covid era, cabins will also change. A lot has been said about safety (specifically from airborne viruses) in cabin design. Not all carriers will adopt the same strategies or configurations. However, under consideration are: staggered rows, protective screens rising up from seats, seats with no seams or cracks so they’re easier to clean and facilities for passengers to connect their own tablets or smartphones instead of using the traditional entertainment touchscreens.
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In this industry, change comes slowly. Getting qualified as a pilot or an aerospace engineer takes longer than in many other professions, planes are ordered years in advance and setting up new routes involves a lot of planning and permissions. Nevertheless, the current situation demands quick actions; those who move fast will be in a better position to fight, or more eloquently, thrive in the “new normal”.