MIAMI – Amid the unprecedented aviation crisis due to COVID-19, Joe Biden is set to become the 46th President of the United States. How he will fare the recovery process for the aviation industry is yet to be seen. Many questions abound as to what is going to happen to commercial aviation come January 2021.
Will the larger threat to US air travel still only be the pandemic or politics? In light of the 737 MAX crisis, will Boeing and the FAA become more accountable moving forward? Will US-EU/China relations improve under Biden’s administration? Will his Green policy hinder or speed up commercial aviation innovation? Let’s dive in.
The Survival of US Airlines
Biden’s election comes amid a pandemic that has brought the travel industry to its knees. US airlines have involuntarily furloughed tens-of-thousands of staff and hemorrhage millions of dollars a day.
According to Edward Russel from thepointsguy.com, Biden will face these and other stark economic realities when he takes the oath of office on January 20, 2021.
From new cleaning and disinfecting methods, pre-flight and in-flight social distancing protocols, to the installation of hospital-grade HEPA air filters on aircraft, passengers can feel confident commercial aviation is not a vector for contagion. While Biden is said to make mask-wearing mandatory in all public transport, in general , airlines have done their job.
Due to the pandemic, carrier are more aware that safety is top priority for its customers, employees, and its overall survival. On their own, most carriers have implemented the aforementioned safety measures to guarantee flying as the safest form of transport amid COVID-19. Traveler confidence is picking up, but is it doing so too slowly?
For airlines, the US government needs to extend the payroll support under the federal coronavirus aid package or CARES Act, that expired September 30. The more than US$25bn in relief would allow the country’s carriers to bring back furloughed staff and, according to them, resume flying faster once the pandemic is under control.
As payroll support extension for airlines has bipartisan support, something that will be needed if the Republicans retain control of the Senate, airlines can hope Biden will push for a second bailout. However, Cowen analyst Helane Becker warned that he “expect the next phase for stimulus package to be smaller than previously discussed.”
The FAA and Boeing
After Boeing worked for two years on the 737 MAX fixes, the FAA suggested new training, including learning recovery procedures in flight simulators for Pilots to respond to an abrupt nose-down pitch.
However, according to The Modesto Bee, families of the victims of a crash in Ethiopia in March 2019, however, said the amendments to the FAA are insufficient. They urged the agency to publish “a detailed, systematic pilot training overview” covering MCAS and to mandate that when MCAS turns on, Max jets have a new warning informing Pilots.
Under Biden, the Federal Aviation Administration should strengthen its plan for teaching Pilots how to handle a Boeing 737 Max nose-down pitch, US Pilot unions say. The reasoning behind this statement is that Biden is set to safeguard travelers and airlines staff, lending a more understanding ear to industry unions.
On Monday, the union representing Pilots from Southwest Airlines (WN) said that the FAA should minimize the number of measures that Pilots need to recall and conduct in the sort of emergency that occurred before both 737 MAX crashes. The union said that error rates grew “exponentially” with long checklists, and it was difficult for Pilots in a simulator “to remember the steps in order.”
On their part, American Airlines (AA) Pilots said that 737 MAX Pilots should prepare for such an emergency every two years, not every three years as suggested by the FAA.
Monday was the deadline for comments on the FAA’s plan for preparation. Within weeks, the Agency was able to issue a final regulation, removing one of the last barriers for airlines to start using the aircraft. Before the end of the year, Boeing expects FAA approval of the 737 MAX.
Whatever the case may be, the industry will look to the new administration for better oversight of the relationship between the FAA and Boeing, as the there’s evidence that both were in cahoots to speed up the Max certification, which entailed lax testing procedures and insufficient Pilot training for the new but flawed Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).
US Airport Infrastructure
Other issues Biden has said he will address include the country’s aging infrastructure. Even with the historic drop in passenger numbers, airports continue to need updates to everything from their terminal buildings to runways. Trade group Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) continues to push for higher passenger facility charges to fund such improvements.
Biden has called US airports “Third World.” He even singled out New York’s LaGuardia in 2014, in a speech calling for infrastructure improvement. “When demand is back to normal, the real bottleneck will be airport infrastructure,” says Snyder. Airports were very congested pre-COVID-19, making it difficult for airlines wanting to serve them to get in.
In his infrastructure plan, Biden covers roads, rail, and aviation. His “clean energy” plan also touches on transport. Biden’s plans, as per his campaign, include making US airports “the best in the world” by doubling funding for the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program and backing the ongoing NextGen technology system.
However, Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of travel industry research and advisory firm, Atmosphere Research says, “There’s nothing very concrete in what the Biden-Harris campaign team has proposed.”
Regardless, ACI-NA President and CEO Kevin Burke said in a statement Saturday, “We look forward to working with the president-elect and his administration on a range of aviation issues, including his promised infrastructure investment package.”
We can agree with Burke when he states that the entire travel industry is still suffering from the abrupt, sustained drop in tourism and business travel, and that “airports need help to get through this prolonged downturn.”
We can also agree with Brett Snyder, founder and author of the airline industry blog Cranky Flier. Snyder says that the travel industry needs two things. “First, it needs the CVID crisis to be controlled better, and then it needs borders to open. Those go hand in hand. So I think the prospects of borders reopening sooner are likely to be better with a President Biden.”
US Aviation Abroad
Snyder also says the European Union, followed by the United Kingdom, should be the priorities for opening borders.” This would entail the new administration to start work on testing regimes and towards reopening borders.
Th author says that under President Biden, a “less adversarial approach would be better” in foreign affairs as they relate to commercial aviation. Biden one would be keen to repair international relations but would ultimately be led by the science.
According to Forbes‘ Senior Contributor Loren Thompson, Biden will possibly tone down the US rhetoric against China and adopt the free trade ideals he has championed since being elected to the Senate in 1972. Additionally, there is no doubt that he will remain in the World Trade Organization as a liberal internationalist.
For US airlines, we surmise that these would benefit from an ‘open sky’ agreement with China where governments, according to Harteveldt, give carriers from both sides unlimited rights to fly between the two. This form of deal seems plausible under the Biden administration.
For passengers, this could end up reducing fares by increasing capacity, and it could open up routes from regional airports to China’s major cities. For the airlines, it would open up cargo capacity, particularly crucial at a time when passenger numbers are at a historic low, according to an edition.cnn.com report.
Another point for opening borders both ways is the issuing of visas. “I think that COVID aside, the visa-processing issues and visitors’ ability to get into the US would definitely be easier under a Biden administration,” says Emerson Barnes.
US Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement congratulating president-elect Biden on Saturday, “The right combination of technologies and behaviors already exists to allow the restart of travel without compromising health and safety, and making rapid and reliable testing more widely available will be a key element of an even broader economic reopening.”
Aviation and the Environment
As the current administration’s plans to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2017 was set to take effect on November 4, 2020, the US is about to make a U-turn on that decision, as per the President-elect’s comments on the matter.
Biden’s proposals include renewable aviation technologies as part of a strategy to spend US$400bn over a decade in clean energy science. He talks about making aircraft more fuel-efficient, but the industry has already begun that, with a zero-emissions target date of 2050; however is not moving “at the rate that offers breakthroughs in the time needed to exacerbate the climate crisis,” says Hartveldt.
It is understood then that “greening” the industry will be the priority of the Biden presidency. How that will be done is still something we just have to wait and see, but Snyder gives us a hint.
“If he followed the UK and introduced an APD [air passenger duty, a tax levied on passengers flying out of the UK] and tried to restrict things instead of encouraging the development of green technology, and investing in research and development, I think it would probably not succeed.”
“But if the focus goes onto working with Boeing, Airbus, and anyone else in creating green technology and providing funding if necessary, that could be a helpful path forward.”
It is difficult to look into the short term with regard to what the US aviation industry will get from the newly elected President. America faces a third wave of COVID-19 viruses, and US airlines continue to burn millions of Dollars on a daily basis.
At stake is, firstly, US’ aerospace dominance and the way corporate relations affect the safety of travelers and airline staff worldwide, with Boeing and the FAA already under the radar in this mstter.
In addition, we could see US-EU/China relations relax under Biden’s administration, spearheding more commerce (cargo operations) and air travel between the continents on both sides of the pond.
Finally, we have yet to see how Biden’s Green policy will affect commercial aviation’s efforts to become greener, as this cannot come soon enough.
As we get close to January 20, 2021, as per our last analysis on the presidential candidates, it is safe to say that the industry, being a major player in the US and world economy, will no doubt benefit from the policies put forward by the new administration.
Featured image: JFK Airport