Six Ways Coronavirus Could Hurt Aviation Over The Long Term

More than 500,000 aerospace production jobs are at risk in the COVID-19 slowdown, wrote the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the principal aerospace workers’ union, in a March 23 letter to members of Congress.

For aviation, and many industries, the COVID-19 crisis is hitting faster and harder than any previous crisis. For the past six weeks airline capacity cuts, fleet groundings, and sadly, layoffs, have happened at a shocking pace, along with talk of halting jetliner production, many more layoffs, and of government aid for the afflicted parties. Time is racing by, and it’s very difficult to anticipate developments five days, or even five hours, ahead.

Strangely, it might be easier to discuss five years ahead. What will the long-term impact be of this unprecedented disaster on the aviation industry? Here are six possibilities, in order of how much they keep me from sleeping (that is, the first few are somewhat concerning, while the last one calls for an elephant tranquilizer):

1. Private aviation boosted, or not. Whenever a pandemic or terrorist incident strikes, there’s an anecdotal upsurge in wealthy people considering private aviation as an alternative to scheduled air transport. This makes sense, but has never proven to be sustainable beyond the short-term. Worse, this crisis is very badly hitting equities markets and corporate profits, both of which are closely linked to business jet demand. Perhaps worst of all, this crisis is hammering fuel prices. Resource-rich countries and energy extraction companies are crucial to large cabin jet demand, so that segment will likely be hit hardest.Today In: Aerospace & Defense

2. More Teleconferencing instead of travel. For decades, air transport observers have fretted that the remarkable increase in telecommunications technology will enable more remote meetings, at the expense of in-person meetings and conferences. There’s no evidence whatsoever of this – business travel demand growth has if anything accelerated over the past ten years. But this pandemic and the associated lockdowns is forcing people to rely much more heavily on these technologies, which in turn continue to get better. This trend, coupled with rising corporate environmental awareness and outright flight shaming, could lead to a tipping point where teleconferencing is seen as a viable substitute, thereby hurting air travel demand, particularly for airlines’ most lucrative customers.

3. More government industrial policy and industry management. The U.S. airline industry wants $50 billion in government aid in the form of grants, loans, and loan guarantees; Boeing wants $60 billion for the U.S. commercial aerospace industry. The airline industry was aided by the Air Transportation Stabilization Board after 9/11, and General Motors and Chrysler were rescued by the government in the 2008 Great Recession, but for the aircraft industry this is all but unprecedented, at least in the U.S.; the Lockheed L-1011 loan guarantees in 1971 were the last time anything like this happened. But assuming massive aid is forthcoming, the U.S. and other governments might just decide that picking winners and losers is something they should do more often.

Also, the terms and conditions associated with this aid might change how companies do business, particularly if any of this aid takes the form of an equity stake. Shareholder returns and executive compensation might be constrained, for example. Sourcing decisions might be controlled too. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) stated this week that corporations asking for government help would need to “explain how you will move supply chains and jobs back to America.”

4. New product development cuts. Government aid is unlikely to prioritize new product spending, and given the damage this crisis will inflict on company balance sheets, they’ll be less even less eager to fund new technologies and programs. For Boeing, a company that very badly needs to create a mid-market jetliner to respond to the Airbus A321neo, this could lead to a disastrous loss of market share. But even Airbus, which stands to control 60% or more of the jetliner market if Boeing fails to do a new jet, runs the risk of getting complacent and losing its core jetliner design capabilities. It has absolutely nothing in the new product pipeline, and looks content to focus on cranking out large numbers of A320 series jets.

5. China going its own way. China’s economic, air travel, and jetliner market woes actually began early in 2019, well before COVID-19. Worse, this crisis has exacerbated tensions with the US and the West. As economic nationalism increases, and as state aid plays a bigger role in many economies, China might just decide to pursue an autarkic future. Commercial jets are already a priority in the country’s 2035 plan, and while the results so far have been poor, that problem could be solved with high trade barriers. Chinese airlines would be forced, against their will, to buy local jets. Since China is the biggest and fastest growing export market for Western jets, this would be a serious impairment to future industry growth.

6. Slower growth with de-globalization. This goes beyond China-Western relations. The biggest question of all concerns the geopolitical and macroeconomic drivers behind the aviation industry’s remarkable jet age growth. We’ve lived in a happy world where businesses are global, trade was increasingly free, and people are free to discover exciting new places and cultures anywhere on the planet. But those trade barriers could persist for years, affecting the entire business world, not just aviation. Even without government pressure, the disruption to supply chains induced by this crisis will likely further moves toward inshoring, for many industries. Meanwhile, the increased public, corporate, and personal debt resulting from this crisis could crimp economic growth for years to come.

Chances are, the macro trends that have benefited aviation will resume their historical direction, with a typical strong post-crisis jetliner market recovery. But it’s almost as easy to envision a dystopian future with slower growth and higher borders. That would not be good for the aviation industry at all. Except, that is, for the military side.

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