Aviation’s bright future | Sunday Observer

Aviation’s bright future

In 1944, delegates from 54 nations gathered in the Grand Ballroom of the Stevens Hotel in Chicago at the invitation of the United States of America. At this event, the participants concluded and signed the Convention on International Civil Aviation, also known more popularly as the ‘Chicago Convention’, the defining international agreement which has since permitted the global civil aviation system to develop peacefully and in a manner benefitting all peoples and nations of the world. International Civil Aviation Day was established in 1994 as part of ICAO’s 50th anniversary activities.

The purpose of International Civil Aviation Day, which fell yesterday, (December 7) is to help generate and reinforce worldwide awareness of the importance of international civil aviation to the social and economic development of States, and of the unique role of ICAO in helping States to cooperate and realize a truly global rapid transit network at the service of all mankind.

As the UN and world nations have now adopted Agenda 2030, and embarked on a new era in global sustainable development, the importance of aviation as an engine of global connectivity has never been more relevant to the Chicago Convention’s objectives to look to international flight as a fundamental enabler of global peace and prosperity.

Coincidentally, commercial aviation is also 100 years old this year, with a slew of airlines including British Airways celebrating their centenary. This is a landmark achievement, considering that powered flight is also only around 120 years old. Today’s sleek airliners such as the Airbus A380, Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787 are a far cry from the first commercial and military planes, though. Today, flying is the safest mode of transport - in fact, you are much more likely to die on the road in a vehicle accident rather than in an aircraft mishap.

Today, there are over 120,000 flights a day globally which carry around 12 million passengers. At any given time, there are over 12,000 planes in the air, excluding military planes, helicopters and recreational aircraft. The global aviation industry, worth around US$ 2.7 trillion, supports 65 million jobs on the ground and in the air (All statistics ICAO). There are hundreds of Government-owned and privately owned airlines around the world, most of which fly internationally, though some operate only domestic flights in their respective countries. Modern airliners can carry from 50 to 500 passengers in some comfort (15 hours in economy class is no fun).

We can see several trends in the airline business. A serious attempt is being made to cut down on airliner greenhouse gas emissions, partly due to the efforts of activists such as Greta Thunberg, who advocate avoiding flying if other methods of transport are available. This is called ‘flight shame,’ whereby shame is attached to taking a flight, especially if an alternative such as rail is available. Some examples are Colombo-Jaffna, London-Paris and Washington DC-New York.

Rail travel is far less polluting than air travel and one also has the advantage of reaching the heart of a given city, as airports are generally located 30-40 Km away from the city.

However, one answer lies in hybrid and fully electric airplanes, which are likely to enter service by 2030-2040. But these would only accommodate around 50 passengers and have a limited range of 4,000 Km or so.

But the truth is that some cities are best connected by air. While it is theoretically possible to travel overland from India to Singapore, no one will really do it. But think further, such as Sydney and London and there really is no alternative to air travel (some ships sail on this route, though not regularly). This brings us to the other major air travel trend – ultra long haul flights.

Qantas (among the world’s oldest airlines) recently trialed Sydney-London direct ‘Project Sunrise’ flights which came close to 20 hours. Qantas already flies Perth-London direct, which has become very popular. But does anyone want to fly in a pressurized metal tube for 20 hours straight? What will it do to the human body? How will the pilots cope? These questions are being asked as Qantas strives to begin regular direct flights on this sector at least by 2022.

But wait, what if you can fly the same distance in just 5 hours or so? That is the aim of a new generation of supersonic airliners slated to come on line around 2035. These will not be mega-airliners such as the Airbus A380 or even the Supersonic Concorde itself – they will be small (50 passengers), nimble and much less noisy. Expect to pay a premium for the privilege though – a little over today’s business class fares.

Automation is also becoming a hot topic. Today’s airliners are so sophisticated they can practically fly by themselves. Moreover, satellite based navigation and tracking technology has made flying safer (more modifications came after the MH370 disaster). Even with today’s technology it is actually possible to completely remotely fly an airliner.

There are also plans to do away with the traditional in-nose cockpit and have it in the hold, with the pilots getting a wraparound view from cameras. This will make the airplanes much more aerodynamic as there will be no need for all that glass in the front of the plane (the same argument goes for window-free airliners, which will relay a video feed on the outside view to passengers).

But automation will be even more significant in two other aviation sectors – drones and flying taxis. Delivery drones could significantly reduce the dependence on delivery vehicles and connect remote communities. Amazon and several other companies have already successfully tested delivery drones.

Traffic congestion on the ground has forced city and transport planners to think of the next frontier in urban transport – air.

There are two approaches – Porsche and some other companies are working on flying cars that will essentially be private vehicles that can fly while Uber, Airbus and some others are concentrating on Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) flying taxis (both autonomous and manned) that can carry more passengers on commercial routes, much like ground-based Uber and Lyft services.

Uber even envisages ‘Skyports’ which are mini-airports that can serve big cities. These should come online by 2040-2050, if all goes well.

Despite a bit of flight shame, the airline business will continue to grow at an exponential rate, with airlines needing around 40,000 new planes till 2050. There is also a staggering shortage of pilots that has to be addressed – parents and schools should encourage more children to take up a piloting career.

Over the next 100 years and more, aviation will change drastically, but its core mission will remain the same - bringing people together and shrinking the world.