The COVID-19 pandemic brought the global air industry to virtual standstill in March 2020, delivering a $370-billion “staggering financial loss to the industry,” according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Seating capacity dropped – by half. The total of passengers taking flights fell even further, to 1.8 billion in 2020, from 4.5 billion in 2019.
But all was not lost, according to Maryland Smith’s Martin Dresner. The pandemic, he said, “although devastating to the aviation industry and to society in general, represents an unprecedented opportunity for the industry to move forward.”
Dresner, professor and chair of Maryland Smith’s logistics, business and public policy department, recently served as lead author on a report on behalf of the nonprofit Hermes Air Transport Organization. Speaking recently with Smith Brain Trust, he shared insights from its pages.
The report surveyed aviation-industry organizations to get a pulse on Industry stakeholder shared goals, the vision for leadership in industry decision-making, and whether cooperative arrangements can effectively guide individual nation-state actions.
Respondents, in part, expressed frustration with unilateral state actions that closed borders and restricted air traffic. They also envisioned leadership as achievable under the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization, an affiliate agency of the United Nations), and said collaboration can take place at the regional and international levels “Aviation has recovered from previous crises – for example, SARS, 9/11, and the global financial crisis. “But for a recovery from COVID to happen quickly, all stakeholders have to align as best they can,” Dresner said.
Here are the key findings of the report:
The importance of a cooperative framework: Ongoing research initiatives to develop industry guidelines and protocols that enhance safety, efficiency, confidence and morale in the airline industry can help set a cooperative framework for crisis management. For example, a robust Global Aviation Crisis Management Plan, led by the ICAO, could produce fast, effective responses to crises, like pandemics. “And, to reduce threats to the industry from unilateral state initiatives in crisis management, the framework could invite governments to abide by internationally agreed plans or provide reasons why these plans are not supported,” the report said.
A greener future: The airline industry can rebuild, stronger – and greener, said Dresner, adding that the pandemic revealed an opportunity for managers, companies and employees to learn from the crisis. “Pre-pandemic aviation had significant problems, such as with flight delays and an aviation management system, as one respondent described, ‘struggling to deliver enough airspace capacity and cost-efficiency, and unable to advance on key dossiers,” the report noted. That was particularly true, the respondent said, regarding the slow pace of delivering 1999’s Single European Sky, an initiative to increase the efficiency of air traffic management and air navigation services by reducing the fragmentation of European airspace. Other respondents cited the environmental record of the aviation industry as an area for improvement. As ICAO Council President Salvatore Sciacchitano said in an interview with Hermes Air Transport Magazine, “The post-COVID period will no doubt provide aviation with a tremendous opportunity to build back better, to recover greener. This is an opportunity to accelerate the transition of the global air transport network toward its decarbonized future.”
The role of technology: “Although privacy and fairness are major issues, using technology to increase the efficient and safe movement of passengers and cargo is a shared goal of the associations,” Dresner said. In fact, a 2020 Hermes report on digitization and AI (also led by Dresner) stated, “Digitalization integrated across physical and digital assets, will result in a seamless customer journey by making information available continuously, reducing waiting and transfer times, hyper-personalizing services and optimizing rerouting. Increasing the digitalization of assets will further facilitate predictive maintenance, as information is communicated on a real-time basis to control centers outlining required safety checks and repairs.” Artificial intelligence, the more recent report noted, is accelerating to “impact not just greater autonomy in the air in aircraft and other airspace vehicles and in air traffic management, but also on the ground for operations, security and the passenger experience.”
Meeting those goals, Dresner said, hinges on cooperative initiatives under centralized leadership. Several responding organizations noted, as a strong example to build on, ICAO’s leadership during the pandemic, especially through its ICAO Council Aviation Recovery Task Force. This initiative has provided a forum for determining risk management strategies for the industry.
Dresner said to look for ICAO, in conjunction with other intergovernmental organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations World Tourism Organization “to continue to lead in determining how best to operate aviation safely, efficiently, and environmentally following the pandemic.”
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