MIAMI – What will the future of air travel look like? How are airlines turning the crisis into an opportunity? How are the pandemic and growing concerns about climate change affecting attitudes towards travel?
As The Economist points out, the five-year period before the pandemic was the only one since Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first flight in 1903 in which the industry covered its cost of capital. Burned again by COVID-19, many investors the likes of Warren Buffet have now decided to stay away from anything that flies.
Additionally, the forecast made in May 2020 by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that passenger numbers would return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023 now looks optimistic. But IATA’s prediction that only 30 of the world’s 700 or so airlines would survive the crisis without government help was right on the nose.
Needless to say, as we usher in this new decade, it is a time for the industry to reconsider its options. But before we delve into what the future of air travel will hold, we can take a look at the current state of affairs for the commercial aviation industry.
Effects of COVID-19 on Air Travel
With demand for air travel at an unprecedented low, carriers that failed to get bailouts fell like dominoes, starting with Flybe, Europe’s largest regional airline, in March 2020, Virgin Australia (VA) in April and LATAM, and Latin America’s largest carrier, in May. More airline bankruptcies would ensue.
Apart from travel restrictions, rising ticket prices for those open routes deterred travelers from flying away on holiday. Although fares initially fell to get traveler to purchase tickets after the first and second COVID waves—dropping by 35% in 2021, the low prices did not last long.
Ryanair (FR), Wizz Air (W6) and Air Asia (AK), the world’s biggest budget carriers after the pandemic, waged the “mother of all fare wars” in an effort to put all non-state-subsidised rivals out of business in Europe and Asia. The resulting consolidation left little competition in the industry.
As soon as they could, airlines started to pass on to travelers the increased expense of their new counter-coronavirus initiatives. Analysts estimate that fares will soon be double what they were prior to the pandemic. We must wait and see how this will affect the ULCC model.
As for actual number of flights, leisure travel has been much slower in its recovery. This was not because of any initial hesitation to resume flying. During the pandemic, polls showed that 69% of Americans said they had missed traveling. 23% of Britons said they were planning on being on the first safe-to-travel flights. And If the crisis was over, half of Chinese travelers expected to travel more.
However, after a second wave of the epidemic and a new strain shutting down worldwide travel to/from the UK, the crisis is clearly not over and will not be for at least the first half of 2021.
During the pandemic, airlines have though up different strategies to get customers flying again. Many offered free COVID insurance, covering any medical expenses related to the virus until two week after traveling. Safe air corridors were also set up by countries so travelers could avoid rigid travel restrictions such as 14-day self-quarantines upon their arrival.
Alas, many established corridors, “air bridges” and “travel bubbles”—pairs and groups of countries between which travelers could move without quarantine—collapsed in panic when the second wave of the pandemic hit in the Fall of 2020. And let’s not forget the “flights to nowhere.” There’s really nothing to say about them. The crisis was ongoing, and it was far more serious than previously expected.
Bailout and bankruptcies abounded, and while fewer airlines have disappeared than previously expected, life support from governments and banks is just that, a temporary support. With the last aid package, US airlines can make good on their payroll commitments until March. But airlines needed to keep customers flying, and they tried.
CEOs came out assuring customers that flying was the safest way to travel during COVID, but travelers were confused as border closures, country-based restrictions and trial on-site testing at airports did not mix well. Travel was limited, routes hindered, and consumer confidence remained low.
And so, the aviation industry did its best to win back customers with a marketing blitz, but cabin crew dressed in personal protective equipment and treating passengers as biohazards failed to reassure anyone.
In the end, governments dropped the requirement to leave middle seats vacant, to preserve social distance, when airlines protested that it cut their capacity. But that raised fears that airlines were more concerned with profits than with their customers’ safety.
And it is in this scenario that 2021 begins: the commercial aviation industry has to continue to deal with these and many more issues. For airlines and airports, these unprecedented times called for unprecedented measures, and trial and error ensued.
Turning Crises into Opportunities
The right network is the root of all profits. As such, we can say that for stronger airlines, this is an opportunity to take market share from weaker airlines. An LCC can take advantage of this, and Hungary’s W6 is such an airline. It is reducing capacity on its existing markets and reallocating it, expanding its footprint in new European regions.
According to its CEO and founder József Váradi, W6 operates it business with a focus on keeping the cash flowing and not only for profit, making the carrier resilient in cyclical industry, where if there is an up in the cycle, airlines profit. As a result of its business approach, W6 is strong when there is a cyclical downturn and can disrupt the market.
“Crises are the momentums to disrupt the industry,” stated Váradi in an Economist interview, adding that everyone should have expected an negative event that would affect the industry, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Basically, things were “too good to be true,” and W6 executives knew that.
A Paradigm Shift
Another opportunity for airlines is the one presented by climate change. The Economists asks: Could flying be seen as the new smoking? Perhaps so. The fact is that another challenge for the industry, apart from surviving the pandemic, is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Flying itself is not a bad thing, the fossil-based fuels used to fly are.
The stimulus packages include funds for research in alternative fuels. The industry has also invested in sustainable fuels for over a decade now. Offsetting schemes are also on the table. But until we reach that point when there are sufficient quantities of affordable sustainable fuels to offset the environmental damage done by the burning of fossil fuels, we will still have to deal with one of the biggest issues in air travel today.
In our Innovation series, we take a look at aerospace companies that are on the forefront of this change. They focus their work on eco-friendly, hybrid and carbon-free flight tech; AI-based aviation software, UAS, innovative aircraft design and supersonic flight.
These innovations are the future, and while the industry plans to be carbon-neutral by 2050 with a focus on sustainable fuels, companies like BOOM Supersonic, ZeroAvia, Atlas LTA, Otto Aviation, Ampaire and Deutsche Aircraft are set to disrupt the short-haul market within 15 years. For these aerospace companies, the future is now.
Attitudes towards Flying
It is safe to say that we are seeing the most profound shift in how we consume this thing we call flying. Travel will now be seen more down to earth rather than a social media brag. In addition, due to the industry’s carbon footprint, flight-shaming could become more commonplace, at least from consumers who are not directly involved with the industry.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg brought air travel into the spotlight in 2019 by taking boats, not planes, across the Atlantic Ocean. Her native Sweden coined the term ‘flygskam’, which means flight shame — the guilt of flying as the environment breaks down.
During the lockdowns, there was a push against this ‘lifestyle generation’ who posted images about a perfect life. The paradigm in travel of the dreamscape and flying to paradise destinations might not be seen as a sensitive narrative for airlines, travel agents and their trip brochures as climate change is an ever more present issue in the minds of consumers.
Thanks to the pandemic, we have learned that we can live with fewer holidays and business conferences can be carried out via Zoom. It is a no brainer then that companies would cut unnecessary travel expenditures if they can, reducing their carbon footprint in the process. In the end, whether we should fly or not fly so often, or because we simply cannot do so, the pandemic has made us reconsider what travel means.
Smaller electric aircraft are already flying. They are at the prototype and demonstration stage, but could pave the way for short-haul, point-to-point air taxis and island hops. Currently, the technology to build an electric jumbo is not a reality, but there are workarounds.
As electric batteries get better, you can build something bigger than a Cessna 12-seater. But to see bigger electric aircraft in the air, a hybrid model is the way to go, and there are several ways to go about it, according to Paul Markillie, innovation editor at The Economist.
As Markillie explains it, “You can use a jet engine as a generator to top up the battery while flying. You can also use the electric fans and a jet engine running at the same time for take off and shut down or throttle back the engines during cruise.” Another alternative is flying electric and using a fuel cell powered by hydrogen that can be stored on board. hydrogen has a much higher density than that of current fuel.
Kilo for kilo, aviation fuel contains a hundred times more energy than a lithium battery. However, a jet engine is not very efficient at turning that fuel energy into work, basically creating lost heat. “The fact is that jet engines are about 55% efficient at cruise and much less at take off.”
An electric motor is 95% efficient or better and accrues lower operating and maintenance costs, do not break down and are over all, simpler. All these factors make electric aircraft more competitive and that is before we get better batteries. A hybrid model powered by hydrogen will pave the way to pure electric aircraft, and certainly greener skies.
With too many planes around the world and fewer takers as the new year arrived, Boeing and Airbus slashed production of aircraft and cancelled plans to produce several new ones during this decade, instead focusing their efforts on creating a new generation of aircraft that will be hybrid or electric-powered in the 2030s.
This means that plane makers can skip a generation. This will allow them to not have to worry about paying off the debts accrued in the 2030s from designing this stop-gap generation of planes because there simply won’t demand for them in the coming years.
Airbus, Boeing and the like will focus on new generation aircraft sooner than later. It is in their best interest to do so.
The airline industry is optimistic passenger demand will bounce back as it has in previous crises. This could mean not much will change any time soon. However, the industry is at a point where it needs to leverage innovative technologies to be on the one hand more effective in its operations and on the other, less impactful on the environment.
In addition, mobility will continue to be essential for customers and long-haul flights will still take place. However, the current health crisis, climate change awareness and disruptive technologies will change flying in the next 15 years. So how will air travel be like in the near future?
First, more hybrid and electric planes will take to the skies, connecting short point-to-point, high-frequency routes. Second, long-haul aircraft will be hybrid, with some routes flying supersonic again. Finally, current aircraft design, which dates back to the 1950s, will become more eco-friendly, quieter and energy efficient.
Before the decade is over, aircraft will not all be long metal tubes with wings under which fossil-fuel-guzzling engines hang; instead, they will be more aerodynamic, perhaps delta-shaped, with passenger-filled wings much like the German Junkers G.38 from 1929.