During the international COVID-19 crisis, the aviation industry is experiencing mass disruption. This industry has experienced many interruptions and certainly will again. Historical events have caused positive changes in how we operate and respond, and more adjustments will be learned along the way, guiding our actions moving forward.

Past Game Changers

Until now, the most significant and well-known benchmark disruptor in aviation was the events that took place on 9/11. During that time, the federal government shut down all air travel for days before allowing it to continue. Because of threats and other fears, it took almost 12 months for passenger traffic to fully return to normal. The industry dealt with lingering impacts to airlines, airports, the passenger experience and the national economy.

Other major disruptors that have altered the aviation industry include the funding lapse of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Airport Improvement Program, major spikes in fuel prices, lengthy labor strikes and the Great Recession.

While many hurdles have been overcome, all are a reminder of how resilient the aviation industry has been and will continue to be. As a result of previous events, the federal government, airlines and airports now have security levels not previously imagined, the travel experience being enhanced by terminal renewal development efforts, and airfield capacity expansion is better paced with demand needs.

The Learning Curve for COVID-19

Each disruptor is unique. We are facing a forced significant reduction in passenger traffic along with many uncertainties, including how long the pandemic response goes on and the recovery period for traffic.

Certainly, there will be pent-up demand for air travel. But many questions remain: How strong will business travel return? How long will pleasure travel take to recover? Will the nation find a new comfort level with telecommunication that precipitates a reduced demand permanently for air travel?

Regardless of the answers, it is clear that people need to interact in person. Air travel will always be important to the nation’s economy and quality of life.

As with previous disruptors, the aviation community is coming together to solve short-term issues. We will learn how to deal with a new kind of disruptor and emerge stronger and better than before.


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Brian Reed, a 30-year aviation industry veteran, is an aviation development director at Burns & McDonnell. He helps clients achieve their goals with industry thought leadership on topics from shaping and improving critical infrastructure to the passenger experience and more.