COVID 19 inadvertently accelerated upgrades and innovation in commercial aviation

The pandemic’s impact on commercial aviation reaches beyond lost revenues and grounded planes. It is also shaping the demand for different types of passenger aircrafts. In response to stunted flight-hours and taking advantage of the prolonged recovery timeline, airlines are revamping their fleets and reevaluating their aircraft mix to help them survive the industry downturn. Overall, small-capacity airplanes have become popular, triggering airlines to accelerate replacing older models; large, widebody aircrafts are being retired or put into long-term storage.

The market’s lack of appetite for more long-haul, large-capacity aircrafts had been evident before the pandemic. Last year, Airbus made the decision to phase out their A380 program by 2022 after a deal with Emirates fell through. Boeing’s 747-8 program had been primarily sustained by the demand for its freighter versions, as opposed to passenger 747-8’s.

In other words, the pandemic is amplifying a market trend that increasingly favors small, narrow body aircrafts that are easier to fill and more economic to operate. Many large, wide-bodied passenger planes grounded because of the pandemic might never return to service, even after air traffic recovers. For details, read about the trend here.

Meanwhile, Airbus recently revealed its ZEROe program, featuring three concept models with ranges in the 1000s and 2000s nautical miles. The aircrafts are designed with a holistic approach that seeks to maximize fuel efficiency. One model sports a futuristic, blended-wing body, where the wings merge with the fuselage forming a streamlined shape.

But the most impressing feature is that all three models run on hydrogen fuel. While electric planes are being vetted for short-distance uses, battery technology failed to keep pace with demand. In comes hydrogen fuel, a zero carbon alternative that packs in thousands of times more energy per kilogram than batteries.

With the pandemic dramatically reducing air travel, it provided a moment for Airbus to focus on the future instead of keeping up with current demand. Airbus’s chief technology officer, Grazia Vittadini, understands now is an opportunity for Airbus to find a climate s0lution and emerge from the pandemic much more resilient than before.

Although experiments using hydrogen fuel with existing jet engines had been successful, Airbus is taking a comprehensive approach, redesigning the entire system. Hydrogen fuel takes up more space than gas, thus requiring more storage space; this opens up possibilities for reimagining the cabin layout and usage.

Realizing hydrogen fuel’s enormous potential, Airbus is also engaging with airports to implement hydrogen fuel in more aspects of air travel. They are actively considering air traffic control, ground transportation, and other air travel energy uses. Hydrogen fuel could power 100% of the airport infrastructure.

Read more about Airbus’ ZEROe program here and here.