In the wake of COVID-19, which has undoubtedly made itself known to the aviation sector, aviation specialist Cameron Rimington ponders what might lay just around the corner.
Imagine halving the duration of a trans-Atlantic flight. Imagine a cruising speed so fast that you break the sound barrier. Imagine boarding in New York just after breakfast and arriving in Paris before lunch. Then imagine that we already had all this… in 1976.
Today, those arriving at Charles de Gaulle may glimpse the iconic silhouette of a decommissioned Concorde, the supersonic jet that revolutionised air travel – almost. Since 2003, the Concorde service has been firmly shelved. Its legacy mixes vindication from anti-noise campaigners, nostalgia for a lost culture of business travel and the tragedy of the 2000 crash, from which the brand never recovered.
As the damage of COVID-19 is fully revealed, there is however another lesson to be drawn from the Concorde’s demise – aviation’s flight path is never a straight line. Industry groups are growing more shrill in advocating a ‘return to normal’ but such advocacy overlooks just how normal disruption is in this industry. Trying to go back to how things were is a multibillion-dollar gamble against a clear lesson from history: we never know when aviation is about to change until it already has.
The story of commercial aviation is one of plot twists, cameos and the occasional dead end. Sometimes progress has been slow and incremental, like the fine-tuning of aircraft design or steady improvements to fuel efficiency. Sometimes it has lurched ahead in leaps, like the arrival of the jetliner in the 1950s or the step-change of the B747. In the most recent chapters, it has been range where the plot has thickened; Singapore Airlines flies 19 hours direct to Newark, New Jersey, while Qantas is now pursuing direct links between Sydney and London.
Aviation’s narrative is so erratic that its opening scene now looks like a bizarre prologue. At the dawn of the 20th century the future of aviation was not about fixed-wing aircraft at all, rather airships. Count von Zeppelin and fellow industrialists sank their fortunes into bigger and better dirigibles, confident they were investing in the one true future of aviation. Could they have known the end was approaching? At what point in the aeroplane’s ascendency did they realise that the course of aviation had switched dramatically against them?
In more recent memory, we might look to the fate of the A380, a marvel of engineering that will be remembered as little more than that. Airbus bet big on the dominance of hubs and trunk routes and despite some serious orders from major airlines, commercial aviation is now turning the page. While A380s still grace the sky for the time being, the aircraft will no doubt take its place alongside the Concorde as an innovative tangent to the main storyline of aviation.
For in this industry, what is technically possible is not always what prevails. In other research fields, innovation alone determines success. Whatever technology is newest, fastest, most convenient or efficient is what dictates the pace and direction of change. Aviation may well be the only industry that consciously clips its own wings. Sheer aeronautical potential is constantly trumped by social licence, how much passengers are prepared to pay, risk or tolerate.
Trying, testing, changing our minds and retreating is not a bad thing, not least for an industry so dependent on safety and public trust. But as with history itself, it means you can only spot the winners retrospectively. The investors in the original Concorde certainly thought they’d backed a winner. The A380 was developed not as some tour de force of aerospace design but because Airbus truly believed it was on the right side of history, or at least the market.
Today, there is no question that the coronavirus is devastating aviation – despite some green shoots, we would still need to look to the earliest days of commercial flight for another time when so few planes were in the sky. As we scramble desperately to recover what we’ve lost to the pandemic, it is tempting to think – as so many aviation pioneers have – that COVID-19 is just a minor setback, that we are fundamentally on the right track, if only we could just “go back to normal”. It is the logic of a gambler, or a madman: if only things were different, then we would start winning again.
So will we start winning again? Are we on the right side of history? Everything that we’ve come to love and depend on in global aviation – being no more than a day from anywhere in the world, cheap international holidays every year, four hours of flights for a one hour meeting – is this the prevailing narrative of the aviation story? Or is it an intriguing aside, an anecdote that is now winding up?
For a sector that is in flux even at the best of times, it would surely be naïve to think this pandemic will change nothing. In the meantime though, coronavirus has not stopped aviation from flicking forward a few pages to peek at the next possible chapters. Earlier this year, Hybrid Air Vehicles released a revised design for its flagship Airlander 10. It produces 75 per cent fewer emissions than similar aircraft, burns a fraction of the fuel and carries a payload of 10 tonnes over a range of 4,000 nautical miles. Its advocates claim it will reinvent the flying experience, revolutionise air freight and ultimately enable emissions-free aviation. It is – for all intents and purposes – an airship.
This story was submitted by Cameron Rimington. Cameron is an aviation professional with seven years’ experience in Australia’s federal transport agencies. He’s worked with airlines on international access, with airports on master planning and is now specialising in transport sustainability transitions at Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs.