Opinion: Aviation Today and Beyond — A Reality Check

Inderjit Singh


December 20, 2023

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© John McArthur / Unsplash

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ACI forecasts that a recovery to 2019 levels will happen next year.

“Just like the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes, aviation will emerge in a reinvented and renewed format, sooner than later; and this time more robust and more sustainable.” This is what I wrote in July 2021 in a piece entitled Corona Proof Aviation.

I seem to have the gift of prophecy. Aviation as a domain, has regained financial stability in less than three years, but passenger traffic is yet to fully bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. We are gradually heading towards this.

When will this happen is the million-dollar question. Despite economic uncertainty, airline capacity constraints, and related congestion problems in airports, air travel grew 2.5 times as fast as global GDP post 9/11, prior to the global economic downturn in 2008.

A global overview and analysis of the effects of 9/11 and the COVID19 pandemic reveal that post-9/11 (in 2001), global flight hours were down by 9% while during the pandemic in 2020, global flight hours were down by 70%. Essentially, three-quarters of airline companies suspended their domestic and international business. This resulted in a loss of US$370 billion for aviation.

As per the ACI World Airport Traffic Forecast 2022-2041, there has been an upsurge in demand across many markets. Global passenger traffic in 2022 was at 72% of 2019 levels. In 2023, it is forecasted to reach 92%. Due to the pandemic, passenger numbers dropped from 9.2 billion in 2019 to 3.6 billion in 2020, before recovering to 4.6 billion in 2021, and 6.5 billion in 2022. The baseline projection is that a full recovery to 2019 levels will happen in 2024.

Future-ready Aviation

What followed 9/11 was comprehensive legislation by the United States to save its domestic aviation industry from bankruptcy, led by the redesign of airline security and safety policies and practices. This led to global compliance across-the-board through a universally acceptable regulatory framework.

This encouraged the revisiting of airline and airport safety infrastructure, modernization and rehabilitation of airports, and enhanced customer satisfaction, all within the parameters of higher industry standards and global best practices. The proactive approach has since made our skies safer.

As for the pandemic, it is significant that instant measures of hygiene, distancing, segregation, and isolation were meticulously enforced worldwide. The timely emergence of vaccines through global cooperation helped to remove travel restrictions and quarantine requirements for the vaccinated.

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Airports are gradually getting busier in all regions. Shown here: Sydney Airport.

Time for a Reality Check

Many industries were hit hard by the economic downturn of 2008—aviation being one of them—but air travel suffered one of the severest blows after the global pandemic of 2019.

Unlike the global financial crisis, which was purely economic and weakened spending power, COVID19 has changed consumer behavior and the airline sector irrevocably. The revival of aviation since then has, however, come a long way.

Most of the recovery could be attributed to the very resilient nature of aviation; the never-say-die attitude of those engaged in it, and the new comprehensive policies formulated. The approach towards financial prudence, streamlining operations, safety, security, and healthcare have helped to eliminate redundancies and add efficiencies, immensely contributing to accelerated capital turnaround.

The world’s airports and airlines are expected to handle 19.3 billion passengers and almost 200 million tonnes of air cargo in 2041. The volume of passengers is projected to reach 23.9 billion by 2050.

Beyond COVID19

As we look beyond the pandemic, aviation needs to grapple with new realities and consequently devise strategies to accommodate this massive growth.

What are the most important strategic areas to consider? Other than the usual creation of capacity, airport modernization, the right mix of aircraft types, streamlining air navigation, and introducing advanced technology.

It is estimated that global GDP could be up to 14% higher in 2030 as a result of artificial intelligence (AI)—equivalent to an additional US$15.7 trillion—making it the biggest commercial opportunity in today’s fast-changing economy.

To my mind, aviation, in all its manifestations, needs to embrace this game-changer technology more aggressively and make it part of its toolkit to transform and restructure prevailing business models. The biggest gains will be in financial operations, communication, healthcare, and customer services as AI increases, efficiency, productivity, and consequently profitability.

We are, perhaps, left with as many questions as there are answers—or still more questions. It is my conviction that it is better to debate a question without settling than to settle a question without debating it.

[This is an adapted version of an article that first appeared in the October 2023 issue of World AirNews. Inderjit Singh is a UN (ICAO) aviation advisor, and former CEO of IGI Airport, New Delhi. He can be contacted by email at [email protected] or [email protected].]