Aviation industry soaring into the future

The socio-economic benefits of the global air transport industry are irrefutable – connecting people and cultures, providing access to global markets, and underpinning trade and tourism growth. The metrics are sublime too – airlines, airports and air navigation agencies employ 7.6 million people, and across the sector’s broader ecosystem, aviation supports 58 million jobs and contributes $2.4 trillion to the world economy.

As global airline traffic surges from the current 3.3 billion passengers annually to a forecast of 7.3 billion by 2034, aircraft manufacturers are rubbing their hands together. Boeing’s market outlook sees a need for 38,050 new airliners over the next 20 years valued at more than $5.6 trillion. Rival Airbus’s similarly upbeat prognosis anticipates a requirement for 32,600 aircraft over the same period.

Manufacturers, airlines, airports, as well as safety, security and air traffic management infrastructures, are experiencing significant growing pains while they develop disruptive technologies to address market demands

But as these extra planes fill the future skyscape there are questions of capacity, CO2 emissions and noise, not to mention the fickle demands of passengers, for whom being shuttled from A to B doesn’t quite cut it; they’re now looking for a connected, seamless, personalised experience.

To provision for this growth, stakeholders, comprising the manufacturers, airlines, airports, as well as safety, security and air traffic management infrastructures, are experiencing significant growing pains while they develop disruptive technologies to address market demands.

Environmental impact

Then there’s our planet. “Our world is changing, the climate is altering and populations are increasing. We need more power, but not at any cost to society. We’re committed to research and technology in order to develop innovative and advanced power systems that can help,” says Caroline Day, head of marketing, strategy and future programmes, at Rolls-Royce, alluding to its $2-billion annual research and development investment.

Two new engine designs, Advance and UltraFan, will become available from 2020 and 2025 respectively as new engine architectures and materials improve airliner efficiency by up to 25 per cent.

But futuristic eco-efficient aircraft won’t solve the market-growth issues if passengers are stuck in a frustrating holding stack in the skies above the world’s mega-hub airports. In China, 100 new airports are under construction; around 60 are underway in India. But Europe’s topography inhibits that scale of ambition; the UK still awaits government deliberation on Heathrow’s extra runway.

So air traffic infrastructure – a determinant of passenger experience – needs radical innovation to address capacity and CO2 concerns, which is why Rolls-Royce along with Airbus, Bombardier, Lufthansa Technik, and various other manufacturers, airlines and airports participate in the Advisory Council for Aviation Research and Innovation in Europe (ACARE), a key player in setting the stringent Flightpath 2050 goals to reduce CO2, NOx (nitrogen oxide) and noise by 75 per cent, 90 per cent and 65 per cent respectively, compared with millennium-era aircraft.

Global Air Traffic

“The steadily growing demand worldwide for flights makes it necessary to develop environmentally friendly technologies for future aircraft – this is the purpose of Clean Sky,” explains Eric Dautriat, executive director of the European public-private undertaking which integrates “players from academia to large industry into an innovation value chain where both environment and competitiveness are addressed at once”. Clean Sky co-ordinates and funds Europewide research and development in green aeronautics, and is the main contributor to reaching ACARE’s goals.

While Clean Sky focuses on aviation’s product development, the capacity and flow of future airline traffic is addressed by SESAR (Single European Sky Air traffic management Research).

“SESAR contributes to the targets of the Single European Sky by designing, defining, developing, validating, and deploying innovative technological and operational solutions for managing air traffic in a more efficient and greener manner,” explains Peter Hotham, deputy executive director and chief corporate quality, planning and support of SESAR Joint Undertaking.

“The goal is to reduce the fuel burned per flight by up to 500kg by 2035,” he says. That’s up to 1.6 tonnes of CO2 emissions per flight. Initiatives, such as time-based separation, keeping planes apart by time rather than by distance, are already enabling London’s Heathrow to handle more landings per hour.

Keeping passengers connected

As the industry deploys infrastructure to improve capacity using environmentally benign technologies, joining the dots that concern the passenger means offering connectivity across journey touchpoints, starting with bookings.

Nothing is more perishable than an airline seat; once the gate closes, an empty seat means lost revenue. But long gone are the days of sweet-talking the check-in clerk to let you sit in front of the class partition. Companies such as Plusgrade and Optiontown are enabling passengers, pre-flight, to bid against other passengers in online upgrade auctions. More than 30 airlines including Lufthansa, Qantas and Etihad are using auction technology.

Upgrade availability is just one factor in a complex matrix of decision-making criteria determining ticket purchase. The top three factors are price, convenient schedules and loyalty programmes. These options are being augmented, even leapfrogged, by demand for end-to-end connectivity.

Onboard wi-fi

According to Honeywell Aerospace, on-board wi-fi availability influences flight selection for 66 per cent of passengers, with 22 per cent of passengers admitting they’ve paid more for wi-fi-enabled flights. Indeed, a survey by Persistence Market Research values the global in-flight wi-fi market at $5.5 trillion by 2021.

Passenger connectivity is omnipresent in aviation retail too. Singapore’s Changi, Amsterdam’s Schiphol and Dubai, long-established retail haven airports, face unprecedented competition from on-board wi-fi as passengers while away inflight hours connecting their smartphones via cabin wi-fi to their favourite retailers.

Pre-flight retail therapy isn’t taking this lying down of course. Beacons are the silver bullets that airports hope will reinvigorate engagement with passengers before they reach the gate. By 2018, 80 per cent of airports will use beacons to provide way-finding services and 74 per cent to provide passenger notifications, according to air transport communications and information specialists SITA.

Some 83 per cent of air travellers now carry smartphones, and in 2016 mobile apps will be the conduit for 16 per cent of check-ins and 37 per cent of ticket purchases. When it comes to on-board entertainment, SITA’s Passenger IT Trends Survey reveals that 67 per cent of passengers want access via their own devices for entertainment compared with 56 per cent for airline-provided content. Passengers also want to send and receive text and e-mails (60 per cent) as well as stream live content (56 per cent).

Flying is a compelling paradigm for connecting people and cultures. The paradox is passengers can no longer wait until touchdown for that sense of connection.