Adapting aviation to ‘new normals’

This covers
Eamonn Brennan

Throughout the pandemic, aviation has proved to be remarkably resilient and adaptable.

Here, I fully appreciate the massive losses, the failures of several airlines, the huge amounts of public money put into the industry and the tragic impact on the lives of many who worked in aviation or who relied on aviation for their livelihoods. However, the industry has survived and it has adapted.

Airports have changed their business models and have sought to reassure passengers, for example by reducing points of contact and by enhancing cleaning regimes. They have put in place test centres and, in some cases, vaccination centres. Runways have been used for aircraft storage, terminals have been temporarily closed and some have used the reduction in traffic to accelerate planned maintenance and infrastructure improvements.

Airlines have retired aircraft early, have put others in storage and have deferred or cancelled new aircraft purchases. They have also worked to reassure passengers by improving aircraft cleaning; some have blocked off middle seats and they have adapted to changing and unpredictable travel restrictions with passengers booking later and seeking more flexible tickets. Services have been rapidly ramped up – and down – as the epidemiological situation has changed and as governments have adapted their rules.

Staff have responded magnificently to this unprecedented crisis. Many, unable to work normally, have volunteered to help in contact tracing or vaccination. And we have seen a massive effort to make sure that safety is ensured as staff come back to work at full intensity – both in the air and on the ground – for example in air traffic control centres. This summer traffic reached around 70% of 2019 levels for the network as a whole but in some areas and at some times – for example weekends in Greece – we have seen traffic at close to ‘normal’ levels.

Future changes

This adaptability is vital because, even without the pandemic, change is relentless. Politicians, the public and our passengers expect aviation to become much more sustainable – something that may involve radically new aircraft designs, new propulsion systems and a massive increase in the production and use of sustainable aviation fuel.

Air traffic management generates some inefficiency leading to greater fuel burn (up to 10%) and this is particularly the case when the system is operating close to capacity. Tackling this inefficiency will not be easy but it needs to be done. We’re already seeing Free Route Airspace becoming the norm and the pandemic has given many airports the opportunity to dramatically increase their use of Continuous Climb and Continuous Descent Operations. The challenge is to keep this going as traffic returns.

Longer term, we see ATM becoming more focused on enabling airspace users to choose their own, optimal trajectory. It will be a major change and it is one for which we at EUROCONTROL, in our role as Network Manager, are investing around €300 million in new systems and a new operations centre.

One way in which we expect to see major developments in the coming years will be the types of aircraft in the skies. Some of this will come from changes in propulsion – to electric and hydrogen. We are also seeing development of new supersonic aircraft, very high altitude aircraft and even airships. However, the most visible change may well be the use of drones and electric air taxis.

All of this presents a real challenge as many of these new types of aviation will be sharing airspace with others and with conventional traffic. They will all have different capabilities, different speeds and different preferred trajectories. Bringing them all together efficiently – and, most importantly, safely – will require major changes in the ATM sector.

I am confident that aviation will respond and adapt. We must do so – all while maintaining (or improving upon) our safety record. Even as we emerge from the pandemic, our objective should not be to get back to where we were, but rather to take the next steps forward.

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