It’s a known fact that Coronavirus is posing unprecedented challenges for the aviation industry. This is actually nothing new. Coronavirus is merely the latest in a series of challenges that mankind has faced in the epic journey of getting himself off of the ground. Wings are clipped for the moment. But this pandemic will pass and aviation will return with the renewed vigour and augmented knowledge necessary to endure future catastrophes.
Brief History of Aviation
Since ancient times, the notion of flight has inflamed the imagination. The most famous myth is that of Daedalus and Icarus. A renowned engineer and architect, Daedalus had built the labyrinth used to imprison the Greek hero, Theseus. However, once Theseus killed the Minotaur and broke free of the labyrinth, Daedalus and his son Icarus were imprisoned there as a punishment. To escape, Daedalus fashioned a pair of gliding wings out of osier branches and wax, and Icarus flew out across the sea. He flew well initially, but, giddy with excitement, he flew too close to the sun. His wings melted, and he plunged down into what would be later called the Icarian Sea.
Stepping out of mythology and into the true history of aviation, the first attempts centered upon the idea of lighter-than-air flight. Roger Bacon in 1250 proposed that a balloon, filled with rarefied air, could rise above the air surrounding it (the same principle that allows helium balloons to float up and away from crying children).
Five centuries later, the biggest breakthrough came from Emanuel Swedenborg, who proffered his ‘Sketch for a Machine Flying in the Air’. Swedenborg conceded that his design was incomplete, but he nevertheless posited that a light frame, strong canvas, and large wings would be necessary for flight. These principles were elaborated in the 19th Century by Sir George Cayley, who studied the physics of bird flight and determined the modern fixed wing, fuselage, tail structure of modern aeroplanes.
Following these breakthroughs in design, heavier-than-air aviation would culminate in Wilbur Wright’s 1903 flight at North Carolina. Although he only flew to 852 feet, it nevertheless marked a new chapter.
Why did Aircraft Associations matter?
The International Air Travel Association was founded in Havana, Cuba, in 1945. While the design of viable aircraft had obviously been a momentous achievement, the founding of this organisation made air travel available to the public.
Airlines initially were spread out across the world. There were competing airlines in America, England, and Japan, and all of them had different and incompatible practices. The IATA would ensure inter-airline cooperation by introducing a single set of standards, practices, and procedures.
However, even this was not without its challenges. In 1956, the Grand Canyon collision of two commercial aeroplanes resulted in the death of 128 passengers. This disaster followed on from the United Airlines 409 crash the year before, and was a landmark since it was the first time an air disaster had killed over 100 people.
In the 1950s, the public was only just beginning to warm to the idea of air travel. Some had trepidations. And many associated air travel purely with the dangers of military campaigns and encounters. In an enquiry into the disaster, the primitive condition of air traffic control was discovered. The IATA and governments collaborated to modernise ATC, to install radar on passenger planes, and to ensure proper training for all flight staff. The fears surrounding air travel were largely dispelled, and it continued to grow in popularity.
Running on Empty
The IATA would weather further crises when, in 1973, OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo. Suddenly, fuel costs quadrupled, rising to over a third of airline operating costs. Again, however, this crisis triggered lasting hormonal changes in the ailing creature that was the global airline industry. Airlines reduced the weight carried onboard their planes. They installed flight management systems that optimised speed-to-power ratios. Furthermore, they investigated composite materials that would render crafts 25% lighter, and, in the 21st Century, give rise to super-efficient materials such as carbon fibre.
What did we learn?
The short-term crises in air travel have paid dividends in the long run, since the resulting innovation does more to boost future profits. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to yield similar lessons.
The Future of Aviation
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts that, by 2035, 7.2 billion people will regularly board flights. This is double the amount that board today. That said, airlines faced a similar challenge to this in the 1990s. At that time, airlines could easily adapt by increasing the speed, number, and capacity of their planes. The challenges in the future are qualitatively different.
Time is relative
For instance, air-travel times are currently less of a factor, and planes got slower in the 2000s. Why was this? Because air travel became more about family diversions, entertainments, and culinary experiences. In 2020, people have far more stimulation available to them on a daily basis than ever in history. They can watch films on their phones, they can read on their tablets, and all while listening to their favourite music on Spotify. Airlines need to adapt to this world. In-flight movies can no longer compete with the more immersive world of social media that is available at everyone’s fingertips. Moving forward, airlines will have to entice customers with augmented reality, virtual-reality headsets, and they must also be able to integrate this with the overall flight experience.
However, augmented reality is not simply for entertainment, but also for safety. The EU is currently proposing initiatives that will allow pilots to use AR to capture 360-degree images of their surroundings. Just as flying insects have compound vision to be able to see all dangers, so too will pilots be able to use this technology to further decrease flight risk. The number of fatalities per year in airline accidents has decreased from 2,500 in 1970 to just over 283 in 2019, one of the safest years in the history of air travel. This trend is set to continue.
Where do we come in?
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