What’s the outlook for aviation and travel? ‘Disruption on a massive scale’ as we remember aviation in the 1930s

“It’s hard to see much light in the gloom,” says CAPA – Centre for Aviation founder and chairman emeritus, Peter Harbison in his editorial in the latest issue of Airline Leader magazine. Who’s to argue with his thoughts? A massive downturn expected earlier to last just a few months has turned into something quite different and even now, we still don’t know just how different it will be.

But what’s now clearly apparent is that the now certain extended delay entirely changes the outlook for the industry. There has been much talk about aviation losing 30 to 40 years of development in terms of passenger traffic, like a trip back to the 1970s, with its reduced traffic levels, the prospect of more active government intervention, smaller networks and higher prices.

But, Mr Harbison argues that the current public health crisis has sent us even further back to the 1930s when you consider international air travel and closed borders and a heightened risk of injury. “There are important lessons to be learned from industry and government behaviour 90 years ago,” says Mr Harbison.

WWI had spawned the multilateral Paris Convention of 1919, which established that every state had absolute sovereignty in the airspace over its territory – a response to the new aircraft that easily crossed boundaries. “That meant essentially that all borders were closed to foreign aircraft and permission became necessary even to overfly,” says Mr Harbison.

Additionally, in the early, barnstorming days of aviation the biggest inhibitor of commercial air travel expansion was safety. “There was an uncomfortable tendency for airlines to crash, a feature that would be passengers found undesirable,” explains Mr Harbison.

Aside from the cost of flying and the lack of comfort – two characteristics that once again emerge in our current condition – people were unwilling to embark on such dangerous missions and it took many years for each of these constraints to be overcome. Mr Harbison notes that it really “took until after the Second World War for intergovernmental agreement on new norms to be achieved, mostly around standardising safety regulation,” a factor that could define our current recovery.

It is hard to look forward with confidence, but the industry that emerges in a few months “will be considerably smaller, less competitive, less connective and higher priced, with greater government interventionism,” predicts Mr Harbison.

Passenger confidence will most likely spawn recovery. Today, most national borders are effectively closed to airline operations, but once again it is the fear of illness, and perhaps death, that has been clearly demonstrated as a major deterrent to air travel.

But it will ultimately be the willingness – or not – of travellers to fly that will decide how and when air travel recovers. They will make their decisions based on their personal confidence about safety.

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