Aviation needs to do better to takeoff once again

Recent safety failures and the effects of the pandemic put the sector's future in serious danger
epa09028737 A photo provided by Instagram user Hayden Smith (speedbird5280) shows United Airlines flight 328 (Boeing 777-200, tailnumber N772UA) with an engine on fire, near Denver, Colorado, USA, 20 February 2021 (issued 21 February 2021). United Airlines flight 328 from Denver to Honolulu experienced right-engine failure shortly after takeoff and had to return to Denver International Airport (DEN). Debris from the plane dropped over Broomfield, Colorado with no injuries reported so far. All 241 people on the plane, including 10 crew members, are unharmed.  EPA/Hayden Smith  MANDATORY CREDIT  EDITORIAL USE ONLY

The safety of travel by plane over other modes of transport is a favourite comparison for airline staff when trying to reassure anxious passengers. While aircrafts are as safe as ever, the sector's future has been in danger since the beginning of the pandemic. Recent events involving faults in planes will not help.

On Saturday, debris from a malfunctioning engine on a United Airlines flight tumbled down on to  a Denver suburb. The plane in question was a Boeing 777 equipped with Pratt & Whitney 4000-112 engines, a model that has now been grounded by Japan's civil aviation authority, with backing from the Chicago-based manufacturer.

This will be a major blow to a company that had already posted a record loss of almost $12 billion in 2020. European manufacturer Airbus, Boeing's main rival, also saw a hit of more than $1bn last year.

Many of the challenges confronting the sector are outside its control. Passenger demand for international travel fell by more than 75 per cent in 2020 against 2019 levels. Airbus has had to cut about 15,000 jobs and does not expect aviation return to pre-pandemic rates of travel  until possibly as late as 2025. While the company predicts making a profit in 2021, pessimists argue a far slower timeframe, pointing to the immense challenge of rebuilding a sector now experiencing activity rates not seen since the 1980s and 1990s.

BROOMFIELD, CO - FEBRUARY 20: In this aerial view from a drone, a piece of an airplane engine that fell from Flight 328 (Top R) sits in the median of Sheridan Boulevard on February 20, 2021 in Broomfield, Colorado. An engine on the Boeing 777 exploded after takeoff from Denver prompting the flight to return to Denver International Airport where it landed safely.   Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images/AFP
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Passenger demand for international travel during the pandemic fell by over 75 per cent in 2020

There are also ways in which aviation itself is to blame. In 2018, Boeing was widely criticised for its response to two deadly crashes involving its new 737 Max model. Some alleged that Boeing had inadequately prepared pilots for new control features on board, and that the company unfairly blamed them immediately after the tragedies.  In fact, the main cause of the catastrophic failures were faults in the aircrafts' updated systems. At the time, the company also stalled on early calls to ground the new fleet.

There have been concerns over passenger safety against Covid-19 when flying. An early study at Harvard University argued that sophisticated air filtration systems onboard would remove almost all bacteria and viruses. But authorities in both Vietnam and Ireland have recorded instances in which a cluster of infections can be traced back to a flight. So far, such cases appear to be isolated events. But these worries will feed into wider consumer worries about the safety of the sector.

Today, people are even calling into question the very future of the aviation sector, a conversation that would have seemed absurd before the pandemic. Despite the downturn, we still owe a great deal to aviation as it strives to minimise delays in the delivery of vaccines, medical equipment and other critical goods. But in a sector particularly vulnerable to scrutiny, it must maintain transparency and openness as it weathers this latest storm.