The Paris Air Show is back from 19-25 June 2023 after a break due to the Covid-19 global health pandemic. This major event in the aviation calendar is more than 100 years old and is the largest and longest-running aerospace trade show in the world.
It will take place at the Le Bourget Parc des Expositions near Paris, and will house at least 150 aircraft on the static park, with many being involved in the daily flying displays. Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, New York City was blanketed in smoke from wildfires raging across Canada:
Aviation companies will be out in force in Paris, showcasing the latest technological innovations, with aerospace manufacturers gearing up for bumper sales to airlines who are predicting a post-pandemic surge in air traffic.
The last show, in 2019, hosted 2,450 companies from 49 countries. More than $140 billion worth of orders were placed. The organisers expect this year to surpass those exhibitor and order figures.
But with a rapidly accelerating climate crisis, is now really a sensible time for airlines to place massive aircraft orders?
Let’s take a look…
Historic Air Traffic Growth
Historically, aircraft sales and air traffic has approximately doubled every 15 years.
Aviation Emissions Growth
Despite all of our brilliant aircraft technology and airline operational efficiency improvements over the past 50 years, this massive air traffic growth has wiped out any emissions reductions, and we’ve actually seen a massive increase in total emissions from global aviation:
Future Air Traffic Growth
Following the air traffic dip during the Covid-19 pandemic, the major aerospace manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, are predicting a return to close to pre-pandemic levels of growth. This would lead to a doubling of air traffic, again, over about the next 15 years:
Climate Crisis Crash
Many more factories, many more aircraft, many more airports, many more flights, many more aviation jobs right?
In the very immediate short-term, i.e. the next few years, yes.
However, we have an even bigger threat than another global health pandemic looming over us. We’re are on track to blow our global carbon budget for 1.5°C of global warming within the next 5-10 years:
In this now highly probably scenario, with the planet facing irreversible climate change, we run an increasing risk of runaway global warming, climate breakdown and ecological collapse. It’s highly likely that we’ll see increased heatwaves, crop failure, and water and food scarcity in many populated regions around the world. This will probably lead to drought, famine and mass migration. A prolonged global financial crisis will no doubt result. Read our detailed workshop analysis of these risks here.
With the carbon budget blown, it will become imperative to reign in emissions. With fossil fuel subsidies removed, and their production ramping down rapidly, kerosene prices are likely to sky rocket. Alternative energy sources (such as biomass and renewable electricity) will also remain scarce – forcing their prices up.
If despite all of this: the potential moral calamity of hundreds of millions of displaced climate refugees, deaths caused by heatwaves, economic depression, intense competition over scarce resources and rising energy prices – people still continue to fly more – it’s likely that governments will place enforced limits on flying and other high carbon or energy-intensive activities.
This could lead to a “climate crash” within the aviation sector:
Stranded assets from building the wrong things
One of our expectations is that business-as-usual aviation expansion today will lead to stranded assets for investors due to overcapacity of factories, airlines and airports for the number of flights that can be taken using the existing fleet of aircraft.
Future ‘zero emission’ aircraft configurations, e.g. electric or hydrogen, are likely to be significantly different size, shape, range and passenger carrying capacity. This will require different airport terminal, gate and runway layouts, as well as alternative airline operations and flight routes. So the chances are that we’re also currently building the wrong stuff.
It’s worth noting though, that the order books being filled at the Paris Air Show this week feature essentially none of these aircraft – they have literally not been designed, developed and certified for operation yet.
We might be able to rebuild our fleet, with ‘zero emissions’ aircraft in the future, if our planet remains livable, but this will be following a prolonged ‘climate crash’ for the industry:
SAF won’t cut it
You might think none of this matters because the industry is pinning it’s strategy on so-called “Sustainable Aviation Fuels” or “SAF” which can be a drop-in low-carbon replacement for fossil kerosene.
However, the CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, has described the airline industry’s emissions goals as a “PR exercise,” saying aviation is on track to miss its target to achieve net zero status in 2050. “Let us not fool ourselves,” Al Baker told CNN. “We will not even reach the targets we have for 2030, I assure you. Because there is not enough raw material to get the volumes of SAF [sustainable aviation fuel].”
A recent scientific paper has also concluded that: “The scaling up of SAF to not only maintain but grow global aviation is problematic as it competes for land needed for nature-based carbon removal, clean energy that could more effectively decarbonise other sectors, and captured CO2 to be stored permanently. As such, SAF production undermines global goals of limiting warming to 1.5 °C; a conflict that is neither recognised in the roadmaps nor in the public debate.”
Other Potential Crashes
If the logic above doesn’t convince you that we’re heading for a ‘climate crash’ of the aviation industry – maybe you don’t even believe that climate change is real or a big deal – then perhaps you might acknowledge a host of other risks facing the aviation industry?
The Covid-19 global health pandemic led to a sudden reduction in air traffic as governments imposed travel restrictions in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus. This sudden contraction of the industry was unplanned and led to widespread redundancies as aviation companies scrambled to save costs, despite financial support provided from governments.
The aviation industry has historically faced an “unplanned” crisis like this roughly once per decade: with the September 11 security crisis in 2001, the financial crisis in 2008 and the Covid-19 health crisis in 2020.
These crises have often been predicted in advance, yet the risks have been played down by aviation companies within corporate risk registers and robust mitigations have been neglected in favour of “planning for the best”, crossing our fingers, and hoping that severe risks never materialise. In all instances, business leaders have faced no repercussions, while aviation workers have suffered all of the consequences when the crises do hit. This has been through voluntary or forced redundancies, erosion of employment terms & conditions, and in some cases the “fire and rehire” practice where employers take advantage of the situation by firing workers then re-hiring them on worse terms & conditions.
We are aware of the these other (not-exhaustive) list of risks:
- The nature of aviation means that it will always be susceptible to security risks both from travellers themselves and the outbreak of conflict which will limit travel to any affected regions. There are numerous factors which are likely to exacerbate conflict in the coming years as a growing population contends with depleting resources.
- Aviation is also susceptible to global health pandemics as governments can attempt to slow the spread of transmissible viruses by restricting travel. We know that the probability of such health pandemics is increasing with time and, with the right conditions, the next pandemic could well be more severe than Covid-19.
- Aviation is also very sensitive to global economics, and therefore to financial crises. These could happen at any time, but face particular risks around the cost of energy: as energy demand continues to grow, yet the supply of fossil fuels must be rapidly reduced in order to meet global climate targets. This is likely to result in higher costs of living, squeezed financial budgets, and increased jet fuel costs which will impact the ability of many to fly – impacting air traffic.
“Covid-19 is like a canary in a coal mine”, said Jonathan Counsell, Group Head of Sustainability for IAG and Chair of IATA Sustainability & Environment Advisory Council, “it’s a demonstration of the scale of disruption that can be caused by naturally-occurring events – and a warning about the even bigger threat posed by climate change.”
So if senior figures in the industry are making these conclusions, then as aviation workers we also need to think for ourselves .
Limiting air traffic is necessary but being ignored
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), have all recommended policies which encourage behaviour change and limit air traffic growth. However, the industry is ignoring this and is planning to more than double global air traffic by 2040. We think this is likely to fly us towards a major industry crash.
We recognise that business leaders are often incentivised to deliver short-term results (e.g. quarterly profits and a rising share price) on time-scales at maximum of a few years, rather than take on costs in the short-term in order to ensure long-term sector stability. They won’t be around when the proverbial “s**t hits the large turbofan” with the climate.
On the other hand, most workers will hope to have a safe and secure job that continues for decades. They’ll benefit from short-term costs such as the work required to transform our factories, aircraft, airlines and airports. They’ll also benefit from re-designing aviation for a more distributed, energy efficient and equitable air transport system where people fly less frequently, less far and less fast in smaller, shorter range zero emissions aircraft. However, workers will be the ones who will bear the brunt of any industry crisis (as they did during Covid) once aviation companies realise they have built in overcapacity with business-as-usual expansion.
An alternative narrative: “Towards a Safe Landing”
We can change the narrative by showing it’s in our self-interest as workers to take rapid climate action and limit flying in the short-term for the best interests of our industry and our employment. This tackles the current dominant narrative that environmental action will be at the detriment to jobs. We can present positive visions of the future for air travel that are filled with employment. Building on the idea of a war time mobilisation – we have a massive opportunity for jobs creation within the industry via tech development e.g of low-carbon planes and associated airports – it will only take money and political will.
At Safe Landing we believe that flying less this decade will buy us time to transform aviation, will help preserve the planet and tourist destinations for future generations and will provide us with the best chance of being able to fly into the future. Surely this is the safest trajectory for people, planet and workers?
We should recognise that very few aerospace, airline or airport business leaders will be willing to accept this reality, although Rome Airport’s CEO is a notable exception. They know that for their company to voluntarily accept limits on growth will put them at a competitive disadvantage against other companies. This is why as aviation workers, we need to recognise the approaching cliff edge and the systemic issue of business leaders who want to cover their eyes and hope for the best, knowing they will likely not be in position when the impact hits. It’s on us to recognise our own self-interest of changing direction. We can be at the controls when navigating a sustainable future for the industry. But we need to lobby politicians, governments and world leaders to step in and properly regulate our entire industry before it becomes to late:
Join us at Safe Landing, to help navigate a sustainable future for aviation workers.
Join our ‘Climate Convos in the Cabin’ workshop next Monday, 26th June 2023, from 7:00-8:30pm UK time – to discuss approaches for having these conversations with colleagues in the workplace.