Aviation Industry Recovery - When Will It Recover In Full?

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May 6, 2021
Aviation Industry Recovery - When Will It Recover In Full?

Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology is a prominent voice in the aviation space. These blogs are for informational purposes only and are meant to spark discussions within the aviation industry on a variety of topics.

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Just over a year after the coronavirus pandemic, the airline industry is finally starting to show signs of life again. Domestic passenger flights have increased across the board for most airlines from this time a year ago, but we're still a long way from a full aviation industry recovery.

Both the airlines and passengers are adjusting to new protocols, there's a sudden pilot shortage for many companies as the uptick in passengers continues, and some promising investment news that is encouraging. Here's a closer look at what's happening in the aviation industry.


Inching Back to Life

After the coronavirus shut down the US economy in March 2020, airlines suffered one of the most catastrophic years in aviation history in terms of flight cancellations. The airlines transported 369 million passengers in all of 2020 — down from 927 million in 2019. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) says that's the lowest number of passengers in the air since the 1980s.

Based on passenger bookings in Q2 of 2021, many airlines are starting to inch back to life. With more Americans being vaccinated and eager to visit family again — or simply resuming business travel — seats are filling up faster than anyone expected just a few months ago, which is indicative of the aviation industry’s recovery that we’ve all been waiting for.

When looking at passenger bookings for Q2, the BTS compared 2021's numbers with the same time in 2019 to reflect the last full year of pre-pandemic air travel. Many airlines should be back to normal capacity (or above) by June of 2021, with only a few still struggling.


Airlines Making Comebacks

Allegiant Air has booked three percent more passengers in April of 2021, compared to 2019. Frontier Airlines is up a whopping 14 percent over 2019, despite dropping nearly 60 routes from its daily flights. Spirit is expected to join Allegiant and Frontier in May, posting a big boost of 23 percent more passengers than it carried in May of 2019.

American Airlines, United Airlines, and JetBlue will all be posting positive numbers over 2019 by June of this year. JetBlue and American have each posted 12 percent increases in passenger bookings for June, with United finally inching up to a one percent increase over its 2019 numbers (which is not a bad sign, since United has been in negative numbers since the pandemic hit).


Airlines That Are Still Lagging

Some of the top carriers in the US, as well as smaller regional carriers, won't be back to 2019 levels by the end of June, however. Alaska Airlines, Delta, Southwest, Hawaiian Airlines, and Sun Country are all projected to still have negative numbers of passengers compared to June of 2019.

This is not simply because of the pandemic, however. A number of factors are playing into those negative numbers, including filling the need for pilots and skilled mechanics as the number of passengers ramps up across the industry.


Delta's Struggles Continue

The pilot shortage that Delta has been struggling with continues to plague its attempts at recovery. The airline had to cancel 600 flights over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2020, and dozens of additional flights at Christmas-time. The same thing happened again over the Easter weekend in 2021, with 74 flights canceled in a single day.


The Urgent Need for Pilots

With so many Americans getting vaccinated and eager to begin traveling again, one of the biggest struggles of the airline industry recovery has been staffing. Airplanes that have been parked for the duration of the pandemic need to go through rigorous safety and maintenance checks for passenger safety before they can fly again. Companies are investing in aircraft maintenance facilities in order to ensure these checks can be done in a timely manner. Flight attendants are being called back and pilots who retired during the pandemic still need to be replaced, while pilots who were furloughed are being recalled to work finally.

United Airlines announced in April 2021 that it needs an additional 300 pilots to get back to normal operations. All hiring stopped when the pandemic hit last year, so the first batch of pilots the company will be contacting were those who had conditional job offers, or who were about to begin United's training program. Fox News reported that Southwest Airlines is recalling 200 furloughed pilots before June 2021.

While those numbers are encouraging for the industry right now, there are predictions of global shortages ranging from 34,000 to as many as 100,000 by the year 2025. This is largely due to pilot retirements over the next few years, right as the aviation industry is finally recovering.

Looking at this from a "glass half full" perspective, it means that the job outlook for skilled pilots over the next few years is booming. 


How Post-Pandemic Air Travel is Very Different

Another piece of the puzzle of getting "back to normal" has been the new protocols. If you have not flown since the start of the pandemic, everything has changed, from masking and social distancing at most airports to the flight experience itself.

There are still no federal regulations in place to standardize industry practices, so each airline has had to make up many of its own safety protocols on its own. Every airline has instituted full-cabin cleaning measures between flights, but after that, there are not very many similarities.

As of April 2020, most of the major carriers still require face coverings. This can be a medical mask or any sort of cloth face covering. Kids under the age of 2 are exempt, but if children older than that refuse to wear a mask, families might be unable to fly. Airline staff are also all masked.

Some airlines are still leaving middle seats empty for social distancing purposes, according to CDC guidelines. Food and beverage service still varies from airline to airline. Many airlines now provide flyers with a kit that will contain a single-use face mask, sanitizing wipes or other similar supplies.

Frommer's is keeping an updated list of the major airlines' new coronavirus guidelines which people can check before heading to the airport.

And there is one more thing to note: Due to the increased number of passengers taking flights once again, airlines now recommend that travelers arrive at airports 90 minutes before flight time to check in.


Safety & Technology Changes

The aviation technology industry has not been static during the coronavirus pandemic. Multiple companies are working on new and improved technological advances to help prevent the spread of the virus. Below are two examples.

Cleaner, Safer Air

Airlines in Canada and the European Union have received approval to begin installing Aviation Clean Air (ACA) ionizers produced by Duncan Aviation on aircraft. Anyone who has ever caught a common cold or the flu from recirculated air on a flight will appreciate this innovation.

Once fitted to the filtration system of an aircraft, an ACA ionizer has been shown to neutralize 99.4% of the novel coronavirus within minutes, as well as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and other viruses. The ionizers are installed in an aircraft's existing duct work by skilled technicians. And yes, it kills the common cold and flu viruses as well.

The ACA ionizers are actually manufactured in the USA, and the demand for more ionizers is increasing in countries around the globe.


Robotic Cleaning Systems

A startup tech company in Switzerland called Uveya has designed a robotic cleaning assistant that it's hoping to market to the airline industry as a fast and efficient COVID neutralizer. It works by rolling up and down the aisles of a plane's cabin a couple of times while bathing the air and every exposed surface in blue UV-C light.

Uveya is pitching the idea as a more environmentally friendly way to quickly clean an entire cabin, since the process uses no chemical cleaners. A single robot can sterilize a single-lane cabin in just 13 minutes.

If the idea catches on, it may cause a boost in the need for even more skilled aviation electronics technology workers, with experience in the latest robotics concepts.


Market Confidence in the Aviation Industry Recovery

In a sure sign that the marketplace is confident in the aviation industry recovery, Americans will see the launch of the first new airline startup in several years later in 2021. Avelo Airlines is based in Houston and received approvals to begin loading passengers on its three leased 737-800s.

Avelo will be a no-frills budget airline as operations get under way. The company plans to primarily fly out of underserved regional airports, although no concrete details have been released on that yet. The fact that a new startup airline is able to attract financing before the pandemic is officially "over" is a good sign that investors are confident that a full recovery is on the horizon.


Shortage of Trained Mechanics & Maintenance Technicians

Even before the pandemic hit, the airline industry was already facing a critical shortage of trained mechanics and maintenance techs. With an estimated 1.3 million airline industry jobs lost due to the pandemic, that problem is only expected to get worse. Boeing and Airbus are predicting a shortage of an astonishing 192,000 skilled mechanics and techs over the next two decades.

The big issue within the industry is that skilled mechanics are retiring faster than programs like those here at Spartan College can replace them. Fifty percent of all currently employed aviation mechanics are expected to retire by the year 2034, creating a large demand for replacements.


So, When WILL the Aviation Industry Recover?

The airline industry unfortunately can't flip a switch and fully recover from the shutdowns that began in 2020. But with many passenger manifests climbing back to pre-pandemic levels, a lot of industry insiders are whispering that the airlines will come roaring back by 2022 at the latest.

The big challenge between now and then, as passenger confidence continues to increase, will be meeting staffing demands. There's a growing need for a new generation of pilots, mechanics, maintenance technicians and even robotics technicians for the aviation industry recovery to really take effect.

If you're interested in the training programs we offer at Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in all of these exciting fields, contact our Admissions office to learn more!


While Spartan College doesn’t offer a program geared in aviation industry recovery, we invite you to explore other aviation-industry training that we offer. Click here to learn more about our programs.

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