Editorial: Why Coronavirus Cannot Kill Aviation

aerial view of airport
Credit: Maxar Technologies

Not long ago, the biggest concern facing commercial aviation was whether Airbus and Boeing could produce enough aircraft to keep up with demand. Industry leaders fretted about how quickly they could ramp up production and whether the supply chain could keep pace. Some airlines were equally bullish, with American Airlines CEO Doug Parker proclaiming: “I don’t think we’re ever going to lose money again.” 

After a run of unparalleled and seemingly unstoppable prosperity, aviation and aerospace have flown into a perfect storm. The temporary shutdown of Boeing’s 737 MAX production line has waylaid aerospace suppliers. But that pales in comparison to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which first crippled a crucial growth engine, China, and is now decimating air transport markets around the world.

Each day brings a new round of fleet groundings, layoffs and order deferrals or cancellations, which in the coming months will rip through the manufacturing industry like a tornado. A new forecast from Europe projects Airbus will be forced to cut planned production nearly in half in 2021 and may not fully recover before 2027. Boeing is calling on the U.S. government to provide at least $60 billion in aid to aerospace manufacturers, U.S. airlines want another $58 billion, airports $10 billion and the maintenance, repair and overhaul industry $11 billion. It would not be hyperbole to call this the greatest crisis civil aviation has faced since the dawn of the commercial jet age more than six decades ago.

But amid such panic, we need to take a deep breath and remember that this industry has survived many big challenges: oil price spikes; the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome; and the 2008-09 global financial meltdown. Each time commercial aviation has recovered and grown stronger, resuming its long-held trend of outpacing global economic growth.

In one way, the disruption to our lives and businesses caused by the travel restrictions imposed to control the spread of COVID-19 illustrates the degree to which the world has come to rely on air transportation, from enabling commerce to connecting families. This is a crisis on an unprecedented scale for aviation, and there are airlines and businesses that certainly will not survive. But the extent of the disruption gives hope that demand for air transportation will return unabated once the restrictions are lifted.

It is vital for governments, lawmakers and industry leaders to recognize that aviation will need help getting through such destructive upheaval. But in some cases, the optics will invite legitimate criticism. For example, Boeing has returned nearly $50 billion to its shareholders over the past five years while investing far less. Now it wants taxpayers to cough up tens of billions for a bailout? U.S. airlines are no better: They have sent 96% of free cash flow to shareholders over the last five years. And what about those airlines in Europe that should have been allowed to die long ago? Will they use this crisis as leverage for yet another government rescue?

Clearly, there are lessons to be learned from the crisis, and a return to business as usual will not suffice. But in the near term, this is not about partisan politics or competitive advantage. It is about helping a vital industry survive this calamity. Commercial aviation is a connective tissue that underpins global commerce, drives prosperity and supports many millions of jobs. Allowing it to wither is not a realistic option. The coming days will be dark, but rest assured the industry will recover and once again prosper. 


1 Comment
I am an aerospace engineer who has been working in aerospace since now more than 40 years and I can testify that neither aeronautical nor space industries have ever been running like real private companies. Aerospace has always been living from direct and indirect subsidies. When Boeing, L-M, AIRBUS and other big ones say that they are running like private companies, they are lying in our face because they made it through thanks to billions of direct and indirect supports paid by the taxpayers. Even SPACEX must acknowledge that they are one way or the other supported by billions of US tax money. However, now the global aerospace and air transport industry is facing the worst crisis of its lifetime. By the end of May, most of all airline companies will be bankrupt; same for most of the airports. Airframe manufacturers will be bankrupt a few months later. The fate of space industry is not much better. By the way how many travel agencies, tourist guides, hotels, restaurants will survive? Same for the car industry and the myriads of sub-contractors, which will not survive. At the end of the COVID-19 crisis, we will face the worst economic crisis the world has ever experienced and the only way to avoid a worldwide and horrific recession is for the governments to come to the rescue. It will cost billions and governments will have to borrow money, but budget deficits will soar. For avoiding bankrupting our state economies, special taxes will have to be raised and every individual and citizen will have to participate. There is no other way and this time we are all sitting in the same boat; Asia, the USA and Europe will have to work together to save our economies. Nobody, no nation will survive by acting individually. There are many reasons why we are sitting now in such a mess. We all know what went wrong, but nowadays fingerprinting and blaming each other will not help, although, problems will have to be fixed.
However, today, as a senior aerospace engineer and as a citizen of our planet, I am not ready to see the world collapsing and I am ready to help and participate in the recovery.
B. Guillaume The Netherlands