In a vintage photo doing the rounds, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin stand by the steps of an early Learjet, dressed in their signature suits, ties and trilby hats. For almost six decades the brainchild of William Powell Lear has been a name synonymous with speed and the style and sophistication of the early business jet age. But from the end of this year, the Wichita manufacturer will be no more.
Bombardier’s decision to axe Learjet production from quarter four is less about what has happened to aviation in the past 12 months, and more the Canadian firm’s need to consolidate in the face of huge debts. For years, Learjet sales have been sluggish compared with its flagship Challenger and Global lines. But the brand’s demise will be mourned by pilots, customers, and admirers alike.
Long before Covid-19 began wreaking havoc on the industry, we had been hearing about how aviation will have to transform to confront the other great crisis facing the world: climate change. Many believe the pandemic will speed up those moves as part of a “great re-set” of our economic and lifestyle priorities, including where, how and how often we fly.
This week five industry associations jointly came up with a plan for European aviation to be carbon neutral by 2050. Representing airlines, airports, manufacturers and air navigation service providers, the alliance’s recommendations cover four areas: aircraft and engine technologies, sustainable fuels, economic incentives, and aircraft operations.
The biggest problem for sustainability campaigners, of course, is that the industry currently has no real alternative to burning carbon fuels. While there are dozens of studies and start-ups looking at ways of flying aircraft using battery or hydrogen power, it is unlikely that any major breakthrough in this area can happen before the end of the decade.
The answer, however, is unlikely to come from one, single disruptive technology. But, between them, hydrogen and hybrid-electric power and other improvements in the way engines are built, together with air traffic management efficiencies, could contribute to a cut in CO2 emissions approaching that magic 100% by the middle of the century.
In Europe and many other regions, airport expansion has been one of the great controversies of the past couple of decades as the likes of London and Paris have pushed to expand their hubs. Usually environmentalists have been pitted against those who claim that, without larger and more efficient facilities, these cities and their wider economies will lose their competitive edge.
However, the pandemic seems to have put paid to these ambitions, with plans to build a third Heathrow runway on ice, and now the operator of Charles de Gaulle announcing that its Terminal 4 project has been scrapped. The question is whether these decisions will be permanent, or if a resurgence in aviation demand once Covid-19 is conquered will put expansion back on the agenda.
Finally, few carriers have been hit by the crisis worse than the global connectors of the Middle East and Asia. Dependent on a long-haul model based on international traffic connecting through a hub, and with a modest home market and no domestic routes, the likes of Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines have suffered drastic drops in passenger demand. Among the casualties have been sub-brands of the major carriers, focusing on short-haul, low-cost and leisure markets, such as Singapore’s SilkAir, which will be integrated into the mainline operation. Also set to disappear is the Hong Kong airline’s Cathay Dragon offshoot, whose fortunes were also hit by the political turmoil in Hong Kong throughout 2019.
From one of the industry’s grandees, however, a note of optimism: Sir Tim Clark, still at the helm of Emirates after what seems like an endless run-up to retirement, has spoken of his belief that “meaningful capacity” will return for the Dubai airline in the fourth quarter. However, he is now less confident of his December 2020 prediction of a ramp-up in international travel in July and August.
The timing is significant for the Gulf metropolis. The Dubai World Expo – postponed from 2020 – is due to begin on 1 October 2021. And a month later the Dubai Airshow will open its doors. After the cancellation of this June’s Paris air show and a string of other events, Dubai could end up being the first major face-to-face industry gathering since the Singapore Airshow in February 2020.
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