Right now the situation for air travel is not a pretty one. Borders are closed, travel is down, and airlines are struggling to cope. It’s easy to get caught up in doomsday predictions.
But air travel will be back. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum – there were reasons for its growth, and those reasons are not going to disappear.
Business travel remains a necessity. For the time being trade shows have been cancelled, but only temporarily – websites and virtual tours are no substitute for the direct interaction of an entire industry, with its vendors, buyers and innovators, that happens at a trade fair. The same applies to meetings. Companies are plumbing the depths of teleconferencing, but it is already clear to all that the in-person meeting is the gold standard when it comes to communication on all levels. It is also conceivable that willingness to travel for an in-person meeting becomes a competitive advantage in a world of routine videoconferencing; this remains to be seen, but for the important meetings, business travel is here to stay.
Tourism is not going away either. Sure, we’re all contemplating staycations for this summer, but borders will re-open and people will regain confidence. The desire to travel, to see the sun, to see something different, and visit favourite people and places remains strong, and will only be stronger after a few months of lockdown.
As corona picked up speed and countries realized their dependency on single suppliers in distant lands, there were many calls for the manufacture of critical goods to be taken back home. Certainly some of this will happen, but it is part of a larger trend of companies relocating manufacturing closer to headquarters. One thing it will not affect is air freight, since that was never about bulk, but always about speed. The need for speedy shipment of certain goods will remain, regardless of where things are made. Currently cargo rates have tripled on some routes due to the shortfall in passenger plane freight capacity; the demand is clearly there.
Air travel will recover. It will not bounce back the day a vaccine is announced; it will be a gradual process as borders open, restrictions are loosened and airlines resume routes. Fleets that have been downsized will take time to build back up. The economic impact of corona on disposal income for travel will also take time to overcome. But the long-term perspective is good.
Corona is not the only challenge that the air industry faces; at the moment it gets the most attention, but in the long term, technology developments (Hyperloop and 3D printing spring to mind for people and products respectively) will have a greater impact. It is beyond the scope of this editorial to examine these, except to say that in the view from 30,000 feet, people like being with people, and to do that you have to go places, and flying is one of the major ways to accomplish that. It’ll be back.