Not long ago, the biggest concern facing commercial aviation was whether Airbus and Boeing could produce enough aircraft to keep up with demand. Industry leaders fretted about how quickly they could ramp up production and whether the supply chain could keep pace. Some airlines were equally bullish, with American Airlines CEO Doug Parker proclaiming: “I don’t think we’re ever going to lose money again.”
After a run of unparalleled and seemingly unstoppable prosperity, aviation and aerospace have flown into a perfect storm. The temporary shutdown of Boeing’s 737 MAX production line has waylaid aerospace suppliers. But that pales in comparison to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which first crippled a crucial growth engine, China, and is now decimating air transport markets around the world.
Each day brings a new round of fleet groundings, layoffs and order deferrals or cancellations, which in the coming months will rip through the manufacturing industry like a tornado. A new forecast from Europe projects Airbus will be forced to cut planned production nearly in half in 2021 and may not fully recover before 2027. Boeing is calling on the U.S. government to provide at least $60 billion in aid to aerospace manufacturers, U.S. airlines want another $58 billion, airports $10 billion and the maintenance, repair and overhaul industry $11 billion. It would not be hyperbole to call this the greatest crisis civil aviation has faced since the dawn of the commercial jet age more than six decades ago.
But amid such panic, we need to take a deep breath and remember that this industry has survived many big challenges: oil price spikes; the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome; and the 2008-09 global financial meltdown. Each time commercial aviation has recovered and grown stronger, resuming its long-held trend of outpacing global economic growth.
In one way, the disruption to our lives and businesses caused by the travel restrictions imposed to control the spread of COVID-19 illustrates the degree to which the world has come to rely on air transportation, from enabling commerce to connecting families. This is a crisis on an unprecedented scale for aviation, and there are airlines and businesses that certainly will not survive. But the extent of the disruption gives hope that demand for air transportation will return unabated once the restrictions are lifted.
It is vital for governments, lawmakers and industry leaders to recognize that aviation will need help getting through such destructive upheaval. But in some cases, the optics will invite legitimate criticism. For example, Boeing has returned nearly $50 billion to its shareholders over the past five years while investing far less. Now it wants taxpayers to cough up tens of billions for a bailout? U.S. airlines are no better: They have sent 96% of free cash flow to shareholders over the last five years. And what about those airlines in Europe that should have been allowed to die long ago? Will they use this crisis as leverage for yet another government rescue?
Clearly, there are lessons to be learned from the crisis, and a return to business as usual will not suffice. But in the near term, this is not about partisan politics or competitive advantage. It is about helping a vital industry survive this calamity. Commercial aviation is a connective tissue that underpins global commerce, drives prosperity and supports many millions of jobs. Allowing it to wither is not a realistic option. The coming days will be dark, but rest assured the industry will recover and once again prosper.