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Has COVID-19 changed the aerospace industry forever?


During a recent profile interview, Dr. Carlos Cesnik, the director of the Airbus-University of Michigan Center for Aero-Servo-Elasticity of Very Flexible Aircraft, was asked a routine question about what he thought the aircraft of the future would look like. The result was rather surprising.

"If we are having this conversation in early March," said Cesnik, "I could give you an answer based on what we're doing. Today. I'm not sure if I can answer the question.

"Here's the big issue. First, the aviation industry has been riding on a five to six percent increase in passenger demand on a yearly basis. Basically, it rides with the world GDP and the anticipation of the number of new aircraft and so forth. It drives a lot of development, a lot of sales, a large backlog of orders. On top of that, the aerospace industry has committed to seriously reduce aircraft emissions. For that, the things the Center is doing will play a significant role. Now, suddenly, all got disrupted in a very short period of time. It's scary, but it looks like we are living through a major rescaling of our air transportation system."

The effects the travel bans and quarantines have had a huge impact on the airline business as what seemed like a temporary measure stretched out to eight months and counting. But the extent of the impact on the aerospace industry as a whole, and how this will affect not only air travel but also the technology behind it, has gone largely unnoticed.

The initial shock of the COVID crisis was massive. Whole fleets of aircraft were grounded across the globe. In the early days of the pandemic, air travel dropped by 90 percent. Even by September, as restrictions began to be lifted, passenger travel was still down 68 percent compared to 2019, bookings are down 52 percent, planes are flying at about 60 percent capacity, and some major locations are still all but cut off from air travel or require stringent quarantine measures for arrivals.

Bear in mind that this fall in business is in an industry that runs on an assumption of constant growth and works on the kind of paper-thin profit margins that one normally associates with restaurants, though on a much larger scale – to the tune of a total market value of US$8.5 trillion, down from US$8.7 trillion before COVID-19.

The air travel industry depends on very high passenger volume with airliners filled to capacity. If airlines cannot get bums on seats, they very quickly start running at a loss, and this isn't helped by the tortuously complicated economics of national airlines, airport operations, gate allocations, ticket pricing, and fuel costs.

And it isn't just the airlines. Oil companies supplying fuel are hit because fewer passengers mean fewer, if any, flights, which means lower demand for fuel, leading to lower fuel prices, and lower, if any, return on investments. Similar impacts also apply to aircraft manufacturers, both in building and maintaining airliners, parts suppliers, ground transportation of aircraft-related goods, catering, and a thousand other knock-on effects that are often hard to quantify.

In simple economic terms, airlines are billions of dollars in debt, with at least 18 declaring bankruptcy and many more furloughing or laying off personnel. Even the most optimistic projections see recovery as years away.

The impact goes far beyond economics or ruined holiday plans. The pandemic is also altering air travel in ways that may make flying very different in a very short time.

Shocking events like pandemics can resonate through society in unexpected ways. Take a look back to the year 1347 when the Black Death arrived in Europe. Over the next fifty years it spread throughout the continent and killed half the population. It also resulted in a redistribution of land and inherited wealth trickling down to all levels of society, boosting standards of living and sparking a number of number technological innovations, including the development of devices to increase the production of various goods with less labor.

What we're seeing in our modern aerospace industry isn't quite so profound or far reaching, but the pandemic is already introducing the need for innovations as well as goosing along industry trends that were starting to roll before the virus turned up.

A case in point is the kinds of aircraft that are flying. Changes in the economics of flight were moving the industry away from jumbo jets serving large hub airports and the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 747 lines were both already winding up production, but when COVID-19 arrived, it accelerated matters as British Airways announced the grounding of its entire 747 fleet in premature retirement. Many other airlines are making similar adjustments, with Delta and Lufthansa cutting their fleets by 100 aircraft each. In fact, one of the few corners of the aerospace industry where business is booming is in the boneyards where unwanted aircraft go to rust and be picked over for spare parts.

What this means is that we're going to see many fewer large aircraft for passengers, though it's likely that many will be converted to carry freight. Boeing sees the 32,700 new planes projected to be built in the next 20 years being dominated by single-aisle, two-engine aircraft like the 737 MAX as people opt for regional or point-to-point flights.

Airports are also changing. Health concerns and social distancing requirements have made it clear that the standard giant, crowded airports are no longer fit to task so long as people and governments are worried about COVID. That will also have a knock-on effect, at least in the United States, where airlines spend heavily on airport improvements in exchange for favorable gate access.

The result of this, plus the development of more advanced remote and autonomous air traffic control systems, means that regional or even small municipal airports might take up some or even most of the passenger traffic, perhaps leaving the large airports for freight. This is also a trend that's been rolling forward for some years, but the pandemic might be the slope that causes it to pick up speed.

Other technical advances that might be seen are things like UV wands or UV robots to sanitize air cabins in between flights in a way that's much faster, more efficient, and safer than disinfectants. Germ-killing coatings could also be used and lavatories could be made self-disinfecting between visits.

Cesnik says that one possibility would be to use plastic partitions between seats, though this would have safety problems and would certainly cut down on capacity. An alternative might be to completely redesign the cabin, or even the entire aircraft, in a way that enforces social distancing or essentially isolates passengers from one another. But this is hardly be practical and certainly not cost-effective, nor is having people fly across the Atlantic in business jets and prop planes, with the average charter rate for a small aircraft running as much as US$8,000 per hour.

On the other hand, there may be realistic potential for a shift towards the use of smaller aircraft for regional travel, which could in turn provide impetus for fledgling electric aircraft technology and even feed into the development of air taxis – though these are more about getting around densely built-up urban areas than any sort of replacement for conventional aircraft.

The changes being brought about by the COVID-19 will certainly stay with the aerospace industry in the medium- to long-term. While the freight, charter, space, and defense sectors already look to be doing much better, but the passenger sector is unlikely to return to any semblance of normal in the near future. Even after vaccines become available and international borders open up, reluctance to travel by air is likely to linger for some time.

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