In a new weekly comment, Murdo Morrison, head of strategic content at FlightGlobal and former editor of Flight International, takes a look behind the big aviation stories.
Aviation news has made depressing reading for eight months. Every day on FlightGlobal.com we have charted job losses, airline financials awash with red ink, and problems for the aerospace industry as demand for new aircraft and aftermarket services plummets. After a sunny interlude in July and August as lockdowns eased and many of us in the northern hemisphere jetted off on summer vacations we never thought we’d be allowed to have, an autumnal gloom has descended.
But amid the low points, there have been uplifting developments that suggest that – just as the Golden Age of Hollywood and the international airline sector emerged from the Great Depression, and the low-cost airline sector flourished after 9/11 – the Covid-19 crisis could provide a platform for innovation, entrepreneurialism, and technological leaps that could see aviation return on a more environmentally and economically sustainable footing.
Just in the past few weeks, we have seen major advances in green and other disruptive technology. In late September, Airbus unveiled a hydrogen-fueled concept aircraft it believes could be in service by 2035. Is that particular gas the solution to aviation’s carbon dependency? Boeing has its doubts about hydrogen, although it is working on a raft of environmental initiatives of its own, including with Abu Dhabi carrier Etihad on the ecoDemonstrator programme, using an adapted 787.
Are powerful batteries the answer? More than 100 companies are developing electrical vertical take-off and landing, or e-VTOL, concepts, arguing that these “air taxis” or autonomous drones could transform personal travel and light freight delivery in congested cities. True believers include Japanese flag-carrier JAL, which is working with Volocopter to promote urban mobility for both passengers and goods in the country.
Others are more ambitious when it comes to stored energy’s potential, at least in size terms. Sweden’s Heart Aerospace is working on a 19-seat all-electric commercial aircraft – the ES-19 – which will have a range of 222nm and fly by 2026. Batteries power aircraft today, but to scale up the technology to keep the equivalent of a Viking Twin Otter in the air is a big ask. Try telling that to evangelists such as Eviation, which has high hopes for its own nine-seat electric aircraft.
It has been 17 years since Concorde last flew, but companies such as Aerion and Boom tell us it will be much less than another 17 years before those who can afford the luxury of time travel will once again be flying at speeds faster than sound. On 7 October, Boom rolled out its XB-1 supersonic demonstrator, which it says will be used to develop a passenger aircraft called the Overture. Aerion says it is just a year or two away from flying its own supersonic business jet.
During aviation’s deepest and most sudden downturn, it is difficult to be optimistic. But aviation has always been an industry of dreamers whose ingenuity has shrunk our world and improved the quality of our existence. Politicians also recognise the importance of aerospace and aviation to our economic future, and will back it as it innovates its way out of the crisis. To paraphrase Arnold Schwarzenegger, aviation will be back – but the sequel could be very different.
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