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Comment: There’s no ‘going back’ in aviation, only forward

written by Staff reporter | June 26, 2020

The Queen arrives by Concorde at Kuwait in 1979. (British Airways)
The Queen arrives by Concorde at Kuwait in 1979. (British Airways)

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.

Comments (7)

  • Adrian P


    I would suggest what did it for Concorde was that it did not have the name Boeing in front of it.
    After Boeing failed to successfully build a supersonic aircraft a variety reasons were put forward to stop Concorde from operating in the United States of America airspace (which resulted in airlines cancelling their orders). A closer comparison was the fuel crisis in the 1970s, airlines were busy training pilots to replace the glut of post world war 2 pilots that were about to retire. College of Air Training, Hamble was going gangbusters to push cadets through for British Airways then the oil supply was constricted and the fuel price shot up. Result British Airways cancelled the job offers to a whole course of graduated pilots. Last year 2019 a pilot shortage, this year Covid-19 too many plots.
    As for the future, more boom bust. Aircraft will get faster, travelling on the edge of space because twenty hours in a tube is too long. Hydrogen will be a major fuel, used in rocket/turbine hybrid engines for long haul, short haul used in fuel cells to power prop aircraft.

    • jdhjdh


      I disagree. Lots of other countries including many EU countries banned Concord flying over their country at over M1
      One thing many people don’t realise is that an aircraft traveling over the speed of sound constantly produces sonic booms throughout the entire period traveling over the M1. Many people incorrectly think the boom happens once when passing through the sound barrier. Thus Concorde was pretty much restricted to supersonic travel only over the ocean and it’s short range meant it couldn’t make do long ocean routes that the 747 could do non stop.

      • Adrian P


        Concorde was designed to fly across the Atlantic Ocean connecting Western Europe to the USA.
        At the time the UK was not in the EEC. the Iron Curtain was in place and Western Europe was focused across the Atlantic to the USA. Denying landing rights at New York killed off the primary reason for its existence, the USA only relented once the orders were cancelled and the production line shut down.

  • jdhjdh


    Most of the big steps in aviation were a result of military action, mainly WW2 and the cold war. Jets, swept wings, composite materals all came out WW2.
    The Cold war (and the space race which was basically part of the cold war) brought pretty much everything else we have today like computerisation, automation, fly by wire.
    Since then, barely anything has just changed, the technology has just been refined and introduced to more aircraft and I expect there will be very few changes that will come along very slowly.
    The 787 is far and away the most advanced commercial aircraft currently available but it’s now 10 years old and I bet it will not be surpassed for at least another 30 years. Even subsequent aircraft are lacking some of the 787 tech. But it still didn’t really change anything. Arguably, little has changed in jet air travel for 50 year. It’s just had incremental improvements in safety, efficiency, noise and endurance.
    I would not expect another supersonic passenger aircraft for at least 50 years and not due to a lack of technology. The cost of refining the design down to being operationally cost effective and safe enough to meet regulations is the problem. Large aircraft projects has nearly crippled airframers. The development cost of the 787 nearly broke Boeing and it was even worse for Bombardier with the C series. A supersonic commercial liner will require 5x the resources with no guarantee that the airlines will truly buy it. No institution is going to do it for a long time.
    On the military side, traditional combat aircraft are largely redundant with guided missiles, drones and satellites taking their place.

    • Rod Pickin


      Hi, I note with interest your comments re the B787, would you care to appraise the A350 in comparison?

  • S. Nikolic


    Another pessimistic article about aviation. It is sad how an invisible bug can stop the planet.. We still live in a Global village and no online communication will ever replace physical touch or meeting. People will continue to travel as it has always been the case throughout history. Will it be Boeing, Airbus, SpaceX or Comac, Xian, Tupolev it doesn’t matter, people still want to travel. I would love to see some optimism from the media.

    • Adrian P


      Aviation will be fine, the only reason people take the train between Adelaide and Darwin is the novelty value not as a means to get from A to D.
      I look forward Virgin Galactic landing at Brisbane after a record breaking flight across the Pacific.
      BAC give Richard a call.

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