It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It is better to learn from other peoples’ mistakes…Warren Buffett
The pandemic wrecked havoc on aviation over the past three years and now the end seems in sight. Those starved of satiating their appetite for flying no longer face stringent health barriers and have unleashed their pent up frustrations of claustrophobia with a vengeance, filling up aircraft all over the world. The demand for air transport has bounced back in leaps and bounds, perhaps much more than expected, prompting Thomas Romig, Vice President of safety, security and operations at Airports Council International (ACI) to say: “ as countries lifted measures, the traffic just bounced – almost on a vertical line. It would be flat for a little while and then another vertical leap in demand. Growth like that has obviously been much harder to manage”. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has said: “ The travel recovery continues to gather momentum. People need to travel. And when governments remove COVID-19 restrictions, they do. Many major international route areas – including within Europe, and the Middle East-North America routes – are already exceeding pre-COVID-19 levels”. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in a statement issued in May 2022 said there were ” “ clear signs of a strong global recovery in air traffic, characterized by increasing airline confidence and a range of regional air connectivity and air travel facilitation improvements”.
The volatility of geopolitics, public health and the energy crisis effectively precludes one from reaching any accuracy in forecasting. However, it is not difficult to hazard a conjecture based on plausibility and foresight. The introduction of masks, safety protocols, and service disruptions has left its impact leading to a continuing trend of “permanxiety” – a word coined by Skift in 2017 “to describe how social, political, and climate turmoil is coloring consumer expectations of everything, including travel. Skift went on to say that “travelers endure a barrage of worries about terrorism, security, neo-isolationism, racial tension, Trumpism, technology and its adverse role, the widening economic gap, culture wars, climate change, and other geopolitical and local issues.”
Permanxiety could be seriously aggravated by delays in border crossings in 2023 brought about by inadequate staffing, computer glitches and delays in visa processing. It has been estimated that in the United States alone “The delays will prevent 6.6 million international inbound visitors from coming to the U.S”. Prolonged visa processing times, lack of trained staff have also affected Europe which have exhibited “pathetic turnaround times”.
All these factors have given rise to a trend where pre Covid business travellers and tourists resorted to “bleisure” – a hybrid of business and leisure travel. The hospitality industry joined in on this concept, an example being the Hilton chain which started a competition to identify and provide for the blended business and leisure traveller. It is plausible that this compromise trend will continue through 2023.
Intriguingly, these bottlenecks and implosive trends seemingly do not adversely affect the revenue side of the equation for airlines. Aviation by Inform says: “Moody’s Investor Service is forecasting a positive outlook for the aviation industry in 2023. The organization is projecting operating profits for those airlines it rates to increase by more than 200% in 2023. Its projection is based on the premise that increased travel by large corporations and the rebuilding of long-haul international routes will make the recovery more resilient despite declining gross domestic product (GDP) forecasts and other economic factors could increase the risk of falling passenger demand”.
There are other encouraging ongoing trends as well. From a technological perspective, airports are increasingly becoming space tech hubs, turning into g spaceports and vertiports. As an example, in Houston, spaceport integration has already begun. The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a Spaceport Office which has so far licensed 14 spaceports. Furthermore, continuing trends in airport technology include the foray into using liquid hydrogen as an energy source to help in combatting climate change and global warming; the use of artificial intelligence for facilitation; and the “Digital Twin” which can effectively plan and determine where passengers, gates and planes should be located and directed. The Digital Twin is being used at Schiphol in Amsterdam, San Francisco International and Vancouver Airport.
The Digital Twin is a virtual replica of every aspect of airport operations and performance “to maximise efficiency and increase capacity in a more timely and cost-effective way”, as an article in the magazine Passenger Terminal World reports. Its most effective purpose is to alert airports to anticipated problems on a 24-hour basis and flag operations staff at the airport so that they can obviate the threat and operational difficulty that could ensue. It also points to problem areas that could inconvenience and delay passenger flows, thus avoiding congestion.
Another useful purpose of the Digital Twin is that it can alleviate passenger stress. An example cited is the airport and flight experience it offers before the actual experience, thus enabling passengers who are anxious to be more prepared when undergoing the actual experience. One category that benefits from this platform is the autistic community.
The Digital Twin can also offer insights into the future. For example, if an airport has an aspirational goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2030, it can model the aircraft and on-ground vehicle movements as well as other activities on the airfield. These models can be applied to machine learning that can reflect the most efficient way an airport can be run. Even in the planning process of an airport, the Digital Twin could offer the best iteration as Schiphol has done in the application of building information management software to generate a 3D digital version of physical and functional characteristics of an airport infrastructure
On the economic side, Airport Economic Zones (AEZ) – which, according to Paul Woodley, a senior lawyer, are “ suburban areas where infrastructure, land use and economy are focused on the airport” – are increasingly becoming popular where the community around an airport has the airport as the focal point of economic and financial progress. A major study conducted by Gatwick International Airport and a partner in July 2022 revealed that the airport could generate 8.4 billion British Pounds by 2028 through the development of an AEZ. The same study envisions the creation of 50,000 jobs in the AEZ by 2028.
Another burgeoning concept running into 2023 is the “Freeport” – where customs duties and tax do not apply to goods that stay in the airport and are directly shipped overseas. An example is the East Midlands Freeport in The United Kingdom which encompasses three main sites: the East Midlands Airport and Gateway Industrial Cluster (EMAGIC) in North West Leicestershire, the Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station site in Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire and the East Midlands Intermodal Park (EMIP) in South Derbyshire.
Paul Woodley explains that these areas are strongly supported by robust infrastructure comprising “strong existing road and rail freight infrastructure connecting them to all other parts of the country, including seaport-based freeports. There is significant room for growth across the sites, accelerating regeneration, increasing skills and training opportunities and helping to level-up some of the UK’s most deprived areas. The site development process will be managed by the respective landowners and any future development proposals will be subject to planning approval and public consultation”
States must formulate their own strategy on how best to regulate air transport in an year where the end of the pandemic is in sight. One starting point could be a Resolution adopted by the 41st Session of the ICAO Assembly in the third quarter of 2022. States should strengthen their crisis management capacity, including by establishing a crisis framework and mechanism while ICAO should continue to collaborate with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other public health groups, with other relevant aviation medicine and other relevant specialist medical organizations, with Planning and Implementation Regional Groups (PIRGs) and the Regional Aviation Safety Groups (RASGs). ICAO should, while keeping close contact with its regional offices be on the alert for public health information from them while working with the Air Navigation Commission, with aviation subject matter expert groups including such as the Personnel Training and Licensing Panel, and the Safety Management Panel to enable the sharing of information and resources for purposes of global harmonization relating to the prevention and management of public health emergencies.
ICAO should also develop an Aviation Health Management Plan by ICAO supporting implementation efforts of comprehensive management of health in aviation, by consolidating the various references to medical and health-related Standards and Recommended Practices in the Annexes to the Chicago Convention into a comprehensive repository for the management of health in aviation.
From early 2020 to date, we have had numerous lessons that must be learned if air transport is to continue in a safe and orderly manner in 2023. The first is that there must be harmonization in communication. Timely exchange of information is crucial. The second is that geopolitics should not interfere with civil aviation and respect for global harmony in adherence to the principles of international aviation law. There must not be repetitions of blatantly egregious breaches of established norms of international law.
Two instances in this context stand out: the first where Ryanair Flight 4978 which was operated from Athens to Vilnius on 23 May 2021, while over the airspace of Belarus, was diverted to Minsk National Airport in Belarus on seemingly spurious grounds. The Boeing 737-800 which carried 126 passengers and 6 crew members was just 45 nautical miles south of Vilnius and 90 nautical miles west of Minsk when it was ordered to divert from its course and land; the second where The Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK, which is a member of ICAO), launched, without prior notification to the international community, two short-range ballistic missiles 22 minutes apart on a trajectory over its eastern waters, seemingly in defiance of the redeployment of an aircraft carrier by the United States near the Korean Peninsula, which had been in response to Pyongyang’s previous launch of a nuclear-capable missile over Japan. The launches were ominous in that they landed between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
As a sage once commented, if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.