After attending the 2021 SpeedNews Commercial Aviation Industry Suppliers Conference, it’s clear the sector is at an exciting point, which some are hailing as the “third era of aviation”. Reflecting on the experience, Aaron Griffin shares top aviation takeaways, including the evident optimism across the industry.
Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending the SpeedNews Commercial Aviation Industry Suppliers Conference in Beverly Hills – in person. Going into it, I expected to hear a lot about plans and strategies for the post-COVID return to the skies. What I didn’t expect was the optimism! Manufacturers and suppliers have been hard at work in the past year, taking the downtime to start making the aviation industry better, faster, and more environmentally sustainable. Exciting developments are underway.
Pent-up demand is fueling optimism, but the loudest buzz at the conference was around new technologies – particularly supersonic aircraft development. It’s been nearly 20 years since the Concorde retired, and its technology is long overdue for an upgrade. Ambitious startups have rushed in to fill the void. Among them, most eyes are on Boom Supersonic. This month United Airlines ordered 15 of the firm’s flagship “Overture” airliners, slated to carry passengers in 2029. Notably, Boom has a cash commitment in hand, unlike the recently shuttered supersonic aspirant Aerion.
The prospect of supersonic aircraft taking flight again is an exciting one. The question is, why now? The resurgence is happening at a time when environmental issues are at the fore, and supersonic jets are known for high emissions. Boom has been quick to assert a commitment to sustainability, and claims that Overture will be a net-zero carbon aircraft, flying on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). It formed a partnership with Rolls Royce last year to develop the engines. United has said that if Overture meets its safety, operating and sustainability requirements, it will order 35 additional aircraft.
Supersonic jets could be a reality in the near future, but there is still reason to question their environmental impact. The upside is that companies like Boom will have to work harder than the incumbents to address environmental issues. Trying to develop planes that can fly from New York to London in four hours or less at net-zero could be a valuable exercise in itself. This kind of exploration, fueled by lofty ambitions, is how innovations happen.
Talk of the industry becoming more environmentally sustainable was pervasive, and another area of technological development getting plenty of airtime at the conference was eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) and hybrid-electric VTOL. In contrast to supersonic, these small, quiet aircraft focus on short-range urban air mobility (UAM) rather than ocean-hopping.
Getting the technology right is only one hurdle to making VTOL commercially viable. Considerations such as infrastructure, as well as policies and legislation on safety and air traffic control make it a complex endeavor. The future VTOL/eVTOL supply chain is one that traditional commercial aerospace suppliers will have to adapt to if they want to meet the expected demand in this space. Historically the aerospace industry has had a slow supply chain with low volumes and long lead times. The VTOL/eVTOL supply chain will have to be much faster and more economical, comparable to automotive.
On the one hand, this is daunting. But on the other, proponents see a huge industry in the making. They’re in good company: Michael Madsen, CEO of Honeywell Aerospace, created his firm’s Urban Air Mobility unit in 2019. At the conference he announced a partnership with VTOL company Lilium. Virgin Atlantic and American Airlines have placed orders with eVTOL startup Vertical.
UAM did not dominate the environmental conversation, however. The conventional aviation sector is redoubling its efforts to improve fuel efficiency and lower carbon emissions by refining aircraft and engine design and technology. Peter Nicholas Lengyel, CEO of Safran USA, spoke about his firm’s initiatives to make commercial aerospace more environmentally friendly, which will be critical to meeting the EU market’s more stringent targets and goals. One area of focus for Safran is becoming fully compatible with Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), which use recycled rather than fossil-based carbon. The company is following a multi-stage plan, with the aim of becoming 100% carbon-neutral by 2050.
While the outlook for aviation is extremely positive, there are challenges related to supply chains as well as talent. The former stems from the pandemic. Over the past year, many suppliers had to cut back, close down, or pivot to other industries. Now Boeing, Airbus and other OEMs worry whether they will be prepared to meet their needs. Along with the need for an adequate supply base comes the need for talent – and not only in engineering, but also production, sales and other roles. There is also demand for heads of cybersecurity, due to the uptick in threats and strict new regulations, particularly in defense.
At Boyden we are also seeing high demand, in aerospace and other sectors, for newly created roles to lead strategies for pivoting in the wake of the pandemic. We are opening dialogues with outstanding talent, including leaders who have been loyal, but no longer feel aligned with their companies. Thus some companies are losing talent. But those looking to hire now have opportunities to acquire top talent that might not have been available otherwise. Faced with new challenges, companies are veering from their traditional approaches and seeing the value in hiring people from other sectors.
The commercial aerospace market has gone through a long period with very little new development. Now we are at an exciting point, which some are hailing as the “third era of aviation.” New technological development is accelerating, with the big, established players making significant investments and forming partnerships with innovative startups, which are proliferating and rapidly setting a new course for aviation.