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While most of the world has moved out of the first phase of the pandemic, the aviation industry is still struggling to get back on its feet. In August 2021, domestic travel globally was only at 70 percent of the August 2019 levels, while international travel barely reached 50 percent, according to Guillaume Faury, CEO of Airbus.
“There is still a sentiment of uncertainty. I don’t think domestic travel will be back to 2019 levels before 2023, and it will be longer than that for international travel,” he said during a virtual presentation at the Conference of Montreal on Sept. 14. “We’re seeing some recovery in business travel, but again, it won’t reach 2019 levels for many more years,” he added in his presentation entitled The Future of Aviation.
Although Covid-19 caused supply chain disruptions for many industries, Airbus was relatively unscathed because it quickly reduced production, and suppliers in turn adapted to lower production rates.
“But the next 12 to 18 months will be the most challenging for the supply chain, as production ramps up again. We have over 3,200 suppliers and if one or two collapse, it puts the whole system at risk. We have projected our production rates to 2025, which should allow suppliers to react accordingly.”
One of the few bright spots for the industry was an increase in demand for air freight during the pandemic. There are some 25,000 commercial aircraft globally and 2,000 dedicated freighters, noted Faury. Some of the older models will need to be replaced to meet new ICAO climate change requirements.
“We are launching a freighter version of the A350, which should enter service in 2025 with a much lower fuel burn. The industry is at an important juncture where we have to contribute to the earth’s prosperity by lowering emissions. But compared to five or 10 years ago, we know where we need to go.
“First, we have to replace older aircraft with new aircraft. Second, we must increase the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), because only about one percent of the industry is presently using SAF. Thirdly, we need to improve air traffic management systems, because planes are flying further than they need to.”
Faury believes hydrogen has a lot of potential as a fuel source and is more economical that synthetic fuels, which are expensive to develop. He predicts a zero-emission aircraft will be launched around 2027 with service entry around 2035.
Faury feels a tax on fuel is more harmful than helpful in improving fuel efficiency, by discouraging the industry to make more investments in aircraft research and development.
“A tax goes against that,” he said. “Governments need to support a faster transition to more efficient aircraft, and regulators need to understand that. Public and private partnerships need to work together. If we develop a plane that can run on hydrogen, but there are no supplies at airports, then we are no further ahead. That’s where governments can step in.”
Cyber security is another issue Airbus must deal with as it also works in the defense sector. “Global governments need to act together to prevent people from trying to access money and technology.”
A new technology Airbus is working on is air taxis, which Faury believes is a “significant part of the future. Electric propulsion and unmanned piloting are in their infancy, but we’re investing in this space as it drives innovation and can be used in other applications.”