Can aviation stay on course to meet profit, safety and climate targets?

This week's IATA meeting in Dubai has been a moment for the industry to take stock of a turbulent global picture

From a string of airfields in the 1960s receiving a handful of daily flights, half a century later aviation in the UAE is an indispensable part of the country’s success. AP
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When the International Air Transport Association was established in the final months of the Second World War, its founders could hardly have understood the extent to which aviation would one day hold the global economy together.

At its heart, 21st century aviation is about connection – linking countries, economies and people in a way not seen before in human history. This makes IATA's choice of the UAE as the host for this year's annual general meeting – the 80th since the association's foundation – particularly appropriate. The meeting concludes today in Dubai.

Even before the Union, the emirates in this part of the Arabian Peninsula prioritised the building of air links to the outside world and recognised that their long-term future lay in fostering modern trade and transport links with other nations. For that co-operation to flourish, the UAE had to be accessible and aviation was intrinsic to realising that ambition.

From a string of airfields in the 1960s receiving a handful of daily flights, half a century later aviation in the UAE is an indispensable part of the country’s success. According to IATA figures, 13.3 per cent of the Emirates’ gross domestic product is supported by the air transport sector and foreign tourists arriving by air. Tens of thousands of jobs in the UAE are connected either directly or indirectly to the sector, with airlines, airport operators, aircraft manufacturers and air navigation services employing 180,000 people. According to most recent data from the World Bank, more than 15 million tonnes of air freight passed through the UAE in 2021.

Dubai has particularly benefited from its considerable commitment to aviation; the emirate’s reputation as a tourism, financial and investment centre is buttressed by possessing an airline – Emirates – that has worldwide recognition. That airline is joined by dozens more that fly to and from what is the world’s busiest airport by international passenger numbers. In Abu Dhabi too, aviation is not only a driver of economic growth, it is a central part of the emirate’s success; Etihad’s growing connections reflect the UAE's ever-expanding ties. Moreover, its sponsorship of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and teams such as Manchester City has brought the capital global recognition.

For the industry itself globally, the IATA meeting this week has been an important moment to take stock. Although aviation has recovered strongly since the global Covid-19 pandemic – net profits are expected to reach $30.5 billion in this year – many more challenges must be reckoned with. Threats from geopolitical instability, the struggle to turn climate goals into reality and the fight to overcome pressures on growth from strained supply chains will not be solved overnight.

In addition, the instability introduced into the sector by the travails of US aircraft manufacturer Boeing has frustrated the Middle East’s biggest airline, with Emirates’ president Tim Clark saying the plane maker should foot the bill for the airline’s multibillion-dollar programme to retrofit its 777 wide-body jets amid delays in the development of the newer 777X version.

Passenger safety also emerged as a talking point this week. On May 21, one man died and dozens of passengers were hurt when severe turbulence hit a Singapore Airlines flight. A few days later, 12 people were injured when a Qatar Airways also encountered strong turbulence. As well as investing in new technologies to detect bad weather, the industry's rules around seat belts and turbulence look set to become stricter.

What is certain is that aviation is not only set for further growth, it is sure to further develop its quality as an indispensable part of modern life. Whether the aviation sector can maintain such growth and relevance while maintaining profitability, its reputation for safety and its progress towards meeting climate targets remains to be seen. Keeping a close eye on events such as IATA meetings will tell us if aviation is still following the correct course.

Published: June 04, 2024, 3:00 AM