An industry poll indicates early signs of global aviation recovery, with caveats for shrewd digitalization and mindset changes.

With the number of airline flights starting to gradually increase, the commercial aviation industry’s rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic is underway. However, widespread recovery could take several years.

This is the consensus of a major industry poll conducted as part of an online broadcast by mobile-satellite firm Inmarsat and the non-profit trade organization, Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX). The poll reveals that the industry, despite bracing for a slow recovery, harbors a sense of optimism, with digitalization expected to drive the return to profitable growth.

The poll, completed by more than 500 professionals from across the global aviation industry between April and June 2020, shows that more than half of respondents (60%) expected a recovery period between 18 months and three years.  Only 13% said they believed the industry was prepared for a crisis like COVID-19.

The results also offer deep insights into industry sentiment on the shape of recovery, what passenger journeys could look like post-pandemic, and the impact of the crisis on aviation sustainability goals.

The shape of airline industry recovery

Domestic travel is expected to bounce back quickest from the current crisis, with almost nine in 10 (85%) predicting it will recover quicker than international travel, which is still impacted by factors such as border restrictions and quarantines. This supports recent guidance by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that rising flight volumes have been driven by recovery in some domestic markets, most notably China.

Seven out of 10 respondents expected point-to-point travel to bounce back quicker than hub-and-spoke routes, with low-cost carriers (LCCs) expected to recover more quickly than full-service carriers (55% vs 45% respectively).

Whilst commentators initially suggested that the rise of remote working would be detrimental to business travel, 69% of respondents expected a swifter recovery for business travel than leisure travel. These predictions reflect industry concerns around the level of public appetite for leisure travel abroad and spending time in transport hubs.

Interestingly, despite bailouts from many governments, only 7% of respondents believed governments have uniformly done enough to support the industry, suggesting that whilst the crisis is global, the response actions at a national level have been varied.

At the heart of bailout discussions is an international debate on the future of sustainable aviation. In recent weeks, several European air transport associations had called for the prioritization of specific decarbonization initiatives in the allocation of funding to help airlines recover from COVID-19. With a global recession potentially threatening investment in green technology, there was little consensus in the poll about the impact of COVID-19 on aviation’s path to sustainability, with 36% believing the crisis will accelerate progress and 47% thinking it will delay progress.

Said David Coiley, Vice President Market Enablement & Market Capture Asia Pacific, Inmarsat Aviation: “We believe that the Asia Pacific and China regions will lead the recovery of commercial aviation, given their resilient domestic aviation sectors. Since late April, the demand for flights continues to recover in the region, giving us high optimism. The critical aspect however, as the survey shows, is that the airlines will have to continue to make flight safety and hygiene a long-term and sustained priority.”

Passenger journeys post-COVID

As a result of deeper aircraft disinfecting measures, nine in 10 (88%) respondents expected slower turnarounds, which could have a significant impact on flight schedules. Contactless catering was highlighted by 57% as being important during the recovery period, and almost half (44%) expected to see empty middle seats as a common feature of the passenger journey in the coming months despite contrary guidance given by IATA in May.

Despite the financial impact that many airlines are facing, almost half of respondents (45%) believed that in terms of passenger experience, the crisis will only cause a short-term reduction in investment, and almost a third (32%) believed there will be an overall increase in investment.

There was agreement that the adoption of digital and connected technologies will drive recovery, with data analytics, biometrics, artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IOT) set to have the greatest influence on future profitable growth.

Philip Balaam, President of Inmarsat Aviation, said: “The immediate priority for airlines and the wider aviation industry is clearly surviving the unprecedented impact of COVID-19. These survey results, together with the numerous discussions and debates, indicate that the COVID-19 crisis may prove a decisive moment for digital transformation in an industry that’s historically been behind the curve, with the vast majority of aviation professionals expecting digital technologies to help drive a stronger return towards profitable growth.”