The future of aerospace through the lens of sustainability: part 1

Airplane flying field

Published on April 29, 2020

As leaders in organizations across the world grapple with the forces reshaping our world, we find ourselves needing to learn from the past, ensuring we act in the present while trying to understand what may lie ahead. With uncertainty affecting many sectors, now is a good moment to take stock and understand what the future may hold, what will remain the same and what may be different in our futures for Aerospace.

Changes that we know we will see, brought about by increased awareness and a higher degree of social consciousness of society/consumers—married with public demand for greater transparency, will result in Aerospace being held to account. Both non-profit organisations as well as their shareholders. In a more connected and digitally productive world, the challenge isn’t about merely fielding a problematic question and publishing corporate reports. Companies need to ensure that they also come up with the answers to the difficult questions asked by a much broader and informed stakeholder group. This isn’t anything new, as the industry has always been under a high amount of public scrutiny and as a result, driven to evolve, ever since the day it was a genuine commercial enterprise. Demonstrated by the fact that in the last 50 years there has been a 70% reduction of fuel /passenger/Km.

As we look forward, ensuring aerospace businesses are purpose-led, going “beyond shareholder value” will be an essential driver.

As we see restrictions lifted, and organizations put an emphasis back on their core business, one development which we have seen during the pandemic, and which will become even more significant, is that of increased collaboration, both within the aerospace sector as well as across other industries. Such cooperation is a real enabler of growth and sign of corporate maturity. There are also, however, barriers to overcome to achieve full collaboration, such as competition law, as well as “collaboration fatigue”. Such an approach requires a very different way of thinking.

But what of the future? There’s little doubt that evolving technologies such as electric propulsion and smart new materials will bring further opportunities for the industry. 

Although we will see new technology added to new planes coming into service, the challenge and the impact will come from managing and upgrading the existing fleet. So we can make the most of the opportunities which are without doubt coming, being able to adapt will be critical in our thinking, for both planes and the culture of organisations that operate in the sector. Equally, as some of the new technology and materials come forward into routine use, we do need to ensure we continue to maintain a balanced view. For example, the use of advanced materials, which will have a significant advantage in the reduction of weight/fuel consumption. If new materials and the components that they form are not well designed, they will not be able to be re-used due to the cost and complexity of the recovery process, leading us to a linear way of thinking: extract, make, use and dispose of. But by using the principles of the Circular economy from design through to re-use, repair, refurbishment, remanufacture and end of life recycling to create a closed system, we minimise the use of resource input. This approach also reduces waste, pollution and importantly, carbon emissions as well as keeping products, equipment and infrastructure in use for longer, thus improving the productivity of these resources. We must continue to ensure the principles of circularity are part of the design and management of the impacts on the industry.

Although our habits will change, the latest projections before the pandemic from the International Air Transport Association were that global passenger numbers would double by 2036, rising 7.8 billion annually. We wonder if this prediction will remain valid.