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Risks, resilience and the future of aviation

18th September, 2020

A new paper from Prof Stefan Gossling published this week considers “Risks, resilience, and pathways to sustainable aviation: A COVID-19 perspective”. The Covid crisis, Gossling argues, “is a reminder of long-standing, interrelated and unresolved problems characterizing the global air transport system”. Airlines’ small profit margins have often left them lacking financial resilience, and reliant therefore on direct or indirect state, and other subsidies, while the risks and costs that air travel generates are typically borne by society in general rather than by the industry or its customers. 

Climate change creates numerous risks, and aviation emissions – generated by only a small percentage of the global population – create both CO2 and non-CO2 impacts on the climate. It also increases the risks of pathogens being spread on global scales, within very short timeframes, the paper notes. The aviation sector has been widely seen as a victim of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet “air transport has created its own vulnerabilities”, Gossling argues, as despite these risks being long-standing and well-documented  “the general response has been to either ignore (pathogen/disease) or downplay (climate change) these challenges.”

In the UK, a parliamentary debate this week about the impact of Covid-19 on aviation saw many MPs speaking about a sector in crisis. Bolstered by claims about the economic importance of aviation and about a desire to “ensure that this country remains the aviation nation”, many argued for tax breaks or other interventions to prop up struggling airports and related industries. There was almost no discussion about whether returning aviation to its ‘business as usual’ path of growth was actually desirable. While many expressed their concerns about likely job losses only one (the MP for Birkenhead, Mick Whitley), mentioned the possibility of mitigating job losses through diversification, “focusing on socially useful production” and green technologies.

To develop a resilient aviation system, Gossling argues, we will need to “think the unthinkable” which for aviation involves asking how much air transport is really needed, weighing risks and vulnerabilities against short term benefits. “If there is one lesson to be learned from the COVID-19 crisis”, he concludes, “it is the demonstration that nation states can take radical structural actions to deal with emergencies.” Interestingly, some members of the UK Climate Assembly – whose report was published the day of the parliamentary aviation debate – made the same observation. 

The coronavirus crisis is the latest blow to the aviation sector. In seeking a way forward, including for airport, airline and aerospace staff, we need our political leaders to start to think beyond short term bailouts and tax cuts and instead to think seriously about the need for diversification, in order to provide financially stable work in a net zero future.