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The Future of Flight in a Post-COVID World – University of Nebraska Omaha

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This March marks one year since the world began to fully feel the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and few industries have been as hard hit as the aviation industry.

March is also Women’s History Month and there is no doubt that whatever the future holds for the airline industry, there is a growing number of women pursuing careers in the field.

UNO’s own Becky Lutte, Ph.D., associate professor of aviation, is an expert in recruitment and retention of women in aviation, as well as aviation safety policy. Last year, Lutte was also asked to join the newly-formed Federal Aviation Administration Women in Aviation Advisory Board.

As we look back at the last year and toward the future of safe travel, here are some observations and predictions provided by Prof. Lutte:

When will it be safe to fly again?

My short answer is that it’s safe to fly now. The airline industry and airports have taken great steps to create the safest environment that they can. I’ve personally traveled a couple times during the pandemic and it’s really all about passenger compliance – making sure everyone is following the rules and being aware of what’s expected from us.

I think the vaccine is going to further enhance people’s comfort level of getting out there and traveling again by air.

What should airline travelers be prepared for if they do decide to fly, either now or in the immediate future?

I think general best practices for travel at this time are really just knowing and following the guidelines in place. Things like wearing a mask and physical distancing, especially during the pre-boarding phase, if you can, and when you get on the plane as well. My standard is that I board later if I can because I’m able to distance in line better.

Many airlines provide antibacterial wipes when you enter the airplane and I always wipe down everything from the seatbelt to the arm rest to the upper buttons and tray table. So, really it’s just following protocols and being smart about it.

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Do you think proof of the COVID vaccine will be required to travel by air in the future?

I don’t anticipate a vaccine requirement for domestic travel. I think this will remain a bigger priority for international travel.

One of the things I’m really fascinated about that we are seeing is the development of a digital health passport, for aviation in particular. Basically it is an app that allows passengers to quickly see what the COVID requirements are for the country they are traveling to and also upload their COVID test results or vaccination records. If you want to talk short-term versus long-term consequences of COVID-19, this could be the long-term new normal.

What do you think the other long-term impact to the airline industry is going to be?

Well, COVID-19 has decimated the passenger-carrying industry worldwide, without a doubt. Here are just a couple of statistics: Global losses for airlines in 2020 were $118 billion; overall demand for international airline services was down 66 percent in 2020 compared to 2019; and at the peak of the downturn, we were close to 50 percent of planes being parked because there just hasn’t been demand.

The forecast for an industry comeback is about 2023 or 2024, to get back to pre-COVID levels of travel. The future still looks strong. Boeing is forecasting the need for over 43,000 new aircraft deliveries globally over the next 20 years.

How about parts of the industry that aren’t focused on passenger travel?

There are certainly areas in the industry that are actually doing better than the passenger-carrying side. One example is private jet transport, which is used often for business or corporate travel and more people are exploring this option for the security, flexibility, and convenience.

The cargo-carrying market has also fared much better than the passenger-carrying market. In 2020 just over 2 billion people worldwide shopped online during the pandemic and a large percentage of those goods are getting there by air. Just recently, January 2021, air cargo demand returned to pre-COVID levels for the first time.

What does the future look like for aviation students?

Actually, students today are really well positioned, especially those just starting in our program because they are going to be hitting the market at a time when you should see that hiring start to ramp up again. I would definitely encourage any current students or future students who are interested to stay the course.

Long-term, the same increased need for pilots is going to be there because demand will return combined with a heavy number of retirements over the next 10 years, which is going to create a demand for pilots. In fact, the Boeing forecast says that there will be a demand for 763,000 new pilots worldwide over the next 20 years.

Given your expertise in industry trends, especially for hiring more women, will there be any impact due to COVID on the move towards diversifying who works in these fields?

As I mentioned, the industry is going to need to meet workforce demand in many areas, flight, maintenance, engineering, management, finance, airport operations, and so on. To reach these goals, they are going to need to tap into a large community and that is going to include women and underrepresented groups.

The industry continues efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce. As evidence, I am a member of the FAA Women in Aviation Advisory Board working to increase the numbers of women in the field. So, yes, there are many opportunities for women and I think this is a great time for women in aviation, perhaps the best I’ve seen in the 30 years or so that I’ve been a part of the industry.

What other issues, predictions, or trends should people be on the lookout for?

I think one of the big changes for passengers, will be the need to be much more aware of what travel restrictions may exist in other countries going forward and what our responsibilities are to meet the requirements a particular country has in place.

I’m very excited about the innovations occurring in the field. The integration of UAS and the introduction of electric vertical takeoff and landing (EVTOL) aircraft are a few examples. New technology not only makes the industry more efficient and enhances safety, it also leads to more environmentally focused, sustainable operations.

And, finally, the COVID impact has been a slow burn in that it’s going to be a little while before we see air travel comeback. The industry has always been cyclical and so you always have downturns and upswings. While this is one of the biggest downturns we’ve seen, it will return as it always does and I am excited about the future of the industry.

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