Recent events have been a stark reminder of the assumptions behind the future of aviation. In the UK and more recently in the US, airports have been shut down by civilian drones, causing unanticipated, but not unforeseeable disruption to flights. Meanwhile, Brexit uncertainty continues to pose challenges for airlines – with foreign ownership rights threatening to restrict flights in the event of a no-deal.
With the first commercial airport turning 100 this year, it’s clear that politics, governments and geography still matter, and will continue to do so in an increasingly connected and volatile world.
When we wrote in IATA Future of Aviation Industry 2035 that “global instability may lead to nations building higher walls”, we were not being literal – but we were seeking to highlight concerns we were hearing from participants that industry growth predictions (e.g. Boeing’s 4.9 percent annual growth in passenger and 4.7 percent in air cargo from 2014 to 2034) were predicated on geopolitical instability, trade relations, and regional cooperation, as well as a rosy economic environment.
No-one had foreseen, Brexit but instability, protectionism, or flash-points around the world, were of concern. And its these signals that we are looking for when trying to help organisations think more systematically about the future. Humanity is up against a whole host of systemic, transboundary challenges: environmental threats, cyberattacks, food and energy insecurity, the risk of global pandemics. It’s part of the job of governments and multilateral institutions to anticipate and prepare for these complex challenges.
This is where ‘strategic foresight’ comes in. It’s a tried and tested means of thinking through multiple, alternative futures in order to help us make better decisions today.
It involves identifying and assessing possible threats, preparing mitigation plans or policies, and keeping an eye on the associated early warning indicators.
Foresight also helps us to reframe conversations, and an important part of the work was that it helped IATA to start to engage more strategically with governments and airport designers to explore smarter regulation and approaches to urban planning, as increasingly passenger flows, tracing and security shift out – with airports and cities exploring how best to route and optimise in- and out-bound passengers while protecting their citizens’ safety.
Whether the future of airports lies in large airport cities or ‘Aerotropolis’ (a term coined by John Kasarda), whether the dominant hub and spoke model will continue, or whether we will see the reinvigoration of smaller, remote and even automated airports remains to be seen – however, it is clear that value shifts and expectations from an increasingly multicultural and international market will set new expectations.
And as these values shifts, it will be important for governments, airports and airlines alike to revisit their roles – to protect security, but respond to growing expectations around connectivity.
Technology will undoubtedly play a key role – and it’s with interest that we’ve been watching recent developments, such as the potential impact of drones on local transport, or some of the more exciting developments around the introduction of the personal drone taxis in Dubai, or developments in hypersonic planes and space flight. But equally, the less visible changes in how airlines will improve their maintenance repairs and operations, how risk-based security is conducted, or how airlines and increasingly the likes of Google iterate their pricing models.
Which brings us back to the ‘black swans’ and the recent passenger disruption at Heathrow, Gatwick and Newark airports. One of the criticisms we’ve often heard through work with IATA and other aviation organisations in the public and private sector – and one that is not unique to aviation – is that too often the sector can see potential threats or opportunities emerging but is unable to or disincentivised from acting. Issues such as drones are not really ‘black swans’ but ‘black elephants’ – likely and widely predicted events that are ignored for political or financial reasons – or occasionally Black Jellyfish with the potential to rapidly escalate with systemic affects.
There’s an interesting piece by Michael Porter in IATA’s Vision 2050 exploring value creation in the airline industry, that gives rapid context to some of the incentives and barriers to the industry – but more crudely put there seem to be four main barriers or disincentives that could more readily be addressed: a tendency for innovation to get suppressed in a low oil price environment; inertia around the regulation and licensing of new technologies; public and political perception of risk when it comes to aviation and transport; and a lack of international standards. As new markets come online and as power and influence shifts internationally, the latter will become increasingly important.
A positive geopolitical future is an exciting prospect for aviation – but I continue to wonder if the geopolitical outlook has a greater potential to constrain the future of aviation that is currently acknowledged.