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Life beyond COVID-19 - How will aviation need to change?

Life beyond COVID-19. How will aviation need to change?

The pandemic has meant the aviation industry has had to redefine its aviation safety responsibilities, says Patrick Ky, Executive Director, European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA)

Aviation is in crisis. These four simple words already sum up the year 2020 for the industry, with no prospect in sight of a change to that statement or of a true recovery in passenger traffic.

Meanwhile we see every day that COVID-19 is bringing change at an unprecedented pace: office workers embrace (or hate) the opportunity to work from home; livelihoods are devastated as small businesses collapse; large companies fight cashflow issues; employees lose their jobs or face uncertain futures. Yet in other areas business booms, due to sudden and unexpected demand.

For aviation, the one prediction that can be made with confidence is that the entire industry will not be the same tomorrow as it was yesterday, before the pandemic. Any hopes that COVID-19 could spell only a few months of temporary interruption of normal business have been dashed – and deep-rooted change is inevitable. It is now essential that we keep proving that air travel can continue safely by maintaining a focus on the rules and processes that have made flying the safest way to travel. In parallel, we need to identify and embrace sweeping change in our industry, to ensure it emerges stronger and is able to cope with new challenges that will undoubtedly arise.

Safe flying during the pandemic

As a safety agency, EASA’s role has always been to put everything in place from a technical viewpoint to ensure that aviation is truly safe. Many of those protective measures, designed and optimised through many years of rule-making and analysis, were undermined in a matter of weeks after the pandemic gained hold in Europe in March this year.

Previously simple requirements, such as the need for pilots to fly regularly to keep their licences current, suddenly posed immense challenges to the industry, as flights were cancelled and pilots’ flying hours shrank. Aircraft certified for the safe transport of people were quickly converted for transport of cargo in passenger cabins, to deliver urgently needed protective equipment. The importance of regular and thorough cleaning and disinfecting of aircraft gained new urgency.

For each of these situations – and many more – EASA was called upon to make rapid and meaningful changes to existing operational practices, with safety being held paramount, to ensure that the reputation of the industry did not suffer collateral damage. As one example, EASA sanctioned new configurations for transport of cargo in passenger seating at no cost to industry. But we refused permission for hybrid configurations, which could place passengers at risk.

By mid-May, working at the request of the European Commission (EC) and in intense cooperation with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, we published the Aviation Health Safety Protocol, which defined the measures airports and airlines should take to allow for a safe resumption of operations, keeping transmission of COVID-19 to a minimum.

Initial data gathered over the summer indicates that the protocol has been successful, although many other factors mean that passenger numbers are still much lower than had been hoped. Where the protocol is applied, there appears to have been a low incidence of COVID-19 related problems. We are awaiting further data but are cautiously optimistic that fear of contracting COVID-19 at the airport and in flight should not present a barrier to passengers who choose to travel by air.

"The one prediction that can be made with confidence is that the entire industry will not be the same tomorrow as it was yesterday."

Aircraft safety has also been a major focus during the pandemic. Commercial aircraft are not designed for long periods without use – they are simply too expensive to leave lying around. The extreme situation of the last several months has seen an unprecedented number of aircraft parked, and then later returned to service. We have monitored this closely, looking for patterns and prescribing solutions, for example in cases where engines needed additional maintenance steps which could not previously have been foreseen, as we lacked practical experience of such cases.

In air traffic management (ATM) we went in just a few months from under capacity to an environment where there were not enough flights to sustain the cost of the system. Again, EASA was active in monitoring the situation and coordinating with national supervisory authorities, so that air traffic controllers and ATM systems could maintain a high level of performance and safety.

The aim of all these activities was to lay the groundwork to allow the aviation industry to resume activities to match demand, but above all to do so safely. In the many conversations I have with senior industry executives, there is a common understanding that this is no time for cutting corners on safety – the reputation of the industry in this respect remains as vulnerable as ever. The public will not accept a lapse in safety standards because of the pandemic.

EASA’s relationship with EUROCONTROL has been critical during this period. The industry-wide coordination through EUROCONTROL’s European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell has been invaluable in keeping the various parties informed and in step. I look forward to continuing this very fruitful relationship in coming years as the aviation pulls out of the current crisis and emerges in its changed future shape.

And what about that future?

The longer-term challenges facing the industry are huge. Aviation cannot emerge unscathed from this crisis and needs, wherever possible, to use it as a catalyst for change. I would like to highlight four areas that, as I see it, need to evolve as the industry reinvents itself.

Health safety is now an intrinsic element of aviation safety

Safety and security are long-accepted pillars of the aviation industry. The pandemic demonstrated all too painfully that health safety is now a third pillar that can pose an at least equal threat.

COVID-19

COVID-19 impact on the European air traffic network

Explore our COVID-19-related reports, analyses and forecasts.

As regulators, we are currently working out what this change means for our own role. While the immediate needs of the industry were addressed through the Aviation Health Safety Protocol, Europe needs now to determine how health safety can be built in as a core factor in aviation operations. There will be other pandemics, unfortunately.

Financial sustainability for the industry as a whole

In addition to the well-reported financial hits taken by airports and airlines as passengers stopped flying, the crisis threw into question some fundamental aspects of the industry’s financial framework. 

What happens in such a crisis to niche suppliers of aircraft parts, who are so specialist that they have no other customers and no competitors, leaving manufacturing industry with delivery gaps if they go bankrupt? 

What to do about air navigation service providers (ANSPs), usually paid for their services by those who use them, who are required to keep up a service capability even when there is virtually no traffic? Who pays the bills to keep such services in place and prevent even greater long-term damage to the industry?

A green recovery is more important than ever

At the start of 2020, the need to make aviation sustainable and greener was top of the agenda. It is still up there, temporarily eclipsed by the more immediate health problems. While the crisis has led to the mothballing or retirement of an unprecedented number of old, fuel-hungry aircraft, it has done nothing to encourage the industry to invest in more fuel-efficient replacements. Movements such as flygskam, so active at the start of the year, are quieter for now, but such groups are starting to rally to encourage passengers to avoid flying, almost as a civic duty and commitment. The industry needs to be able to respond firmly with counter-arguments and demonstrable actions that make flying more sustainable.

Continue investing into new technologies

Any crisis presents a lot of opportunities. The main challenge is to find the resources and energy for the aviation sector to project itself into a new era. In the air traffic management sector in particular, it is widely accepted that the systemic capacity of European air navigation service provision can only be increased through the adoption of new technologies. It is now, while traffic is down, that investments must be made into the necessary technological leap for ATM.

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