We all know 2020 has not been the year anyone expected, and for those working in the aviation sector it’s been heartbreaking as airlines, staff and airports have cut tens of thousands of jobs. Jobs that it should be added were generally better paid and more consistently reliable than almost any other industry because nobody expected anything could keep aviation down for this long and this hard.
This week the US reported that the number of people working in aviation had dropped to levels equal to 1983, which is pretty sobering.
However its should be put into a little bit of focus, because despite Covid-19, the year will have ended with as many people flying in total, around 1.8 billion, as in ALL of 2003. The fact is the market in 2019 was almost four times what it was in 2003, and that really tells you how rapidly and massively aviation grew, not just after 9-11 in 2001 and the subsequent shallow recession, but even after the financial collapse of 2008-9 that led to a severe global recession not seen since the 1930’s.
The years from 2010 to 2020 saw an unprecedented growth in flights and aircraft numbers, levels that were already being seen as long term unsustainable by both the industry (although they did their best to ignore it all the time they were raking in high profits), and certainly by airports and environmentalists. Airports struggled to cope with expansion in developed Western economies, and Co2 emissions from aircraft, dumped as they are into the high atmosphere without mitigation, woke up the environmental movement in ways it had never done before.
Airlines were at best, paying lip service and in reality doing next to nothing to seriously impact their emissions. What they did do, even on a large scale, such as Lufthansa’s replacement of all of its catering trolleys with lighter weight plastic, might have saved them a few dollars in fuel, but it made no impact on the environment in general.
Covid however has changed that. Like it or not airlines were hit with stark choices. Entire fleets of 744’s, A380’s and A340’s were put to the scrap yard or for long term storage, from which many will never return. Older A320’s, 737’s and A319’s were ditched in surprisingly large numbers as airlines concentrated only on their most efficient aircraft. In airline terms efficient is word for the reality: least financially costly.
And the plight of airlines drove them into the arms of the only place left to bail many of them out: Governments. And for many, especially in Europe, governments made that bailout conditional on airlines accepting realities about their environmental liabilities.
France has in effect forced the development of hydrogen fuelled aircraft. In Britain, which has some of the hardest to reach self imposed Co2 reduction targets, that effort has been supported if not mandated. British Airways and others are starting to work on ways of making it viable. Interim use of biofuels has also been mandated in France, which will force airlines to adopt them. Now they don’t make a lot of difference to Co2 but the do make a difference with all the other toxins and the production process. Germany too, has made it clear it expects Lufthansa Group to adopt far more radical fuel solutions going forward, and hydrogen is the answer.
There is every indication that the new Biden Administration, which is about to get Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transport (running the FAA, ATC and much more besides), along with a forward looking Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm (former Governor of Michigan), who believes that the US cannot be left behind in new energy tech, may well set a course that transforms America’s airlines – though no doubt they will kick and scream to do as little as possible.
This is no time for feint hearts. Covid has bee transformative. Set aside if you can the horrendous death toll and the disgusting politicisation of the pandemic by people like Trump, and look to the future. What it has done is give airlines the opportunity to reset their priorities, and do things differently. Those that embrace change and move with it will reap the rewards of doing so longer term. That’s where the big European conglomerates can actually benefit, because they are more in tune with the public’s changing mood on the environment, more so now that the millennials are hitting the working and higher spending margins where air travel is an option. Not only that they will be the age groups working in the industry, and they will bring change from inside.
Ignore the problems in the short term, and come the 2030’s change will be forced on you like it or not. Airlines and airliners cannot remain as they are now. Change is coming, and frankly it’s not before time.
In my life time which began in an age of VC-10’s and 707’s, I was 7 years old before the 747 rolled out of its factory. I had a model of a 747-100 in Pan-Am livery for years. It was a plastic and transfer Airfix model from 1969. That and a 3ft high Saturn-V of Apollo 11 and the Pan-Am liveried spaceplane form 2001 A Space Odyssey, even though I never saw the film until 1980.
We lived on Star Trek, then UFO and Space-1999. Star Wars in 1977 blew my mind and I didn’t come down from that cloud for three weeks. I miss those days of being impressed, of optimism, of a future in space that seemed just around the corner, viable. Flying was something only rich people (or those far better off than we were) did. It was almost a fantasy to get on a plane and fly to another country.
In 2019 I was almost in tears when I watched a Space-X flight take off and them with exquisite precision in the open ocean on a platform, automatically land. That was simply stunning to me, its the sort of thing as children we only saw in sci-fi. In 2020 I have been deeply moved by the ability of science to create revolutionary vaccines in record times to beat a dangerous and deadly pandemic. Those two things alone prove we can do whatever we want when we need to. And the iPhone? really, those of you who have grown up with such tech, you have no idea how magical, how extraordinary these devices are, they were beyond a dream when we were young.
This year I haven’t been on one aircraft. For the first time since 1990, I haven’t flown at all. Yet it hasn’t dampened my desire to do so. I lament the end of the 747’s – they were the most wonderful and exotic machines, and they came from an age where we knew no better other than that big, noisy powerful machines were in fact thrilling marvels of modern technology. Aircraft are emotive. People enthuse and care about them. We’ll always bemoan the loss of let’s be honest, vast, profligate, polluting mechanical monsters, because they make us feel something beyond ourselves, and that makes us feel really good.
I spent many years in automotive, especially at Citroen when it made real cars like the elegant DS and CX-GTi Turbo 2, at Mercedes-Benz, where many of the worlds most amazing cars were mine to drive, the same again at Audi and Jaguar. I look back on that with some shame. Caught up in the world of powerful exciting, prestigious cars, flying everywhere somewhere to some event or another, a motor show in Detroit. Los Angeles, London, Frankfurt, Geneva, Tokyo, it only crossed my mind at the end what I had done. I’d promoted and eulogised one of the most unwilling to adapt industries in the world. I left it in 2012 after sitting in a meeting where they argued about putting a super-polluting engine into a Jaguar for the China market- because it met one rule on emissions European spec cars didn’t. They weren’t even slightly bothered by the polluting aspect, it never crossed their minds, and they sneered when I asked if they should question their choice on those grounds.
Aviation was always a passion, marketing high-end cars often crossed paths with airlines and aircraft operations. Airlines were always keen to be associated with a quality brand, and the reverse applied. I made many contacts and friends in aviation and worked with them repeatedly over the years.
That’s how I came to write this blog, to review the models, to understand the industry. And it has shown me that when the chips are down, it does, finally move with the times. It struggles to do so, because its margins are often so thin that it can afford to do little but carry on as it is. When airlines make money they often don’t spend it on what they should for the future, but prefer to back hand the money to investors.
This is not that time. They need us to fly, and they need governments to keep them flying, and this time they’ve been put on notice that they have to change. And they will. It’s going to mean an exciting time in aviation. We’re going to see the introduction of commercial airships for short range city centre to city centre travel before 2026. The airships are already being tested and factories built to make them.
We are going to see the introduction of hydrogen powered aircraft and a fuel distribution system to make them viable within the next 15-20 years. We’re going to see electric powered short and mid-haul aircraft appearing in considerable numbers, because they will be smaller and more will be needed. Many are already under development and test flights are already happening.
New types of commercial aircraft are coming. The replacements for the A320 family could prove to be revolutionary, larger aircraft will be taking a new direction.
And while this all might have happened eventually, Covid has brought it all forward by as much as 15, maybe even 20 years. Like any trauma, be it economic, trade, war, or disease, it always creates opportunity, it forces change. History is replete with such moments. This is one of them. Savour it, and whatever your age, remember it, because you were here.