It was in March 2020, when from one day to another suddenly more than two-thirds of the passenger jets fleet of airlines worldwide was grounded due to travel restrictions to stop the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Parents could no longer visit their children, couples were separated for many months, business relations were interrupted, many people had to cancel journeys which they had been looking forward to for a long time. But as often in life, just when something which you took for granted is no longer available, you realise how elementary it is for you. This was most certainly the case for many of us when air travel came to a halt unexpectedly and much longer than we could have ever imagined.
Flying means first of all connecting people across borders, cultures and continents. But flying is much more than that. Aviation is a key pillar of modern supply chains and thus a cornerstone of a functioning world economy. This is already true for perishable goods and postal items – but when it comes to medical supplies, aviation can save lives as the fastest means of transport on long distances. Just think of the deliveries of pharmaceuticals during humanitarian crises or the transport of vaccines throughout the Covid pandemic.
The most secure mode of transport
A bold but seemingly impossible dream of mankind for thousands of years – moving through the air –has now not only been a reality for about 120 years, today, it is an indispensable feature of modern life in a globalised world. In 2021, the number of air travel passengers worldwide was 2.3 billion which is still 49 percent below pre-pandemic (2019) levels. A further recovery is expected this year. Naturally, moving such impressive numbers of people every day entails enormous responsibility. This relates first and foremost to safety of air travel. Thanks to ever more sophisticated aircraft, technology and control systems, the airplane is statistically by far the safest means of transport. And the European civil aeronautical industry is a global leader when it comes to developing both the necessary hardware and software for ever safer air travel and to apply latest technological developments to the constantly changing needs of modern aviation. Only in Europe, there are more than 20,000 flights per day and given the massive complexity that is behind every single one of them (e.g. trans-border coordination between airports, airlines and air traffic management), it is simply remarkable how smoothly and safely air travel runs on a daily basis.
Towards net zero aviation
Surely, we cannot talk about the merits of aviation without mentioning its ecological footprint. The global aviation industry causes around 2% of the worldwide CO2 emissions, much less than many would expect. However, each possible gram of CO2 must be reduced, and it is the clear aspiration of the European aeronautical industry to play its part in the global challenge to fight climate change and cut greenhouse emissions. Together with partners from airports, airlines and air traffic management, the branch has a firm commitment to reach net zero aviation in Europe by 2050 and this commitment is now also mirrored by the global aviation sector through the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) including our global association ICCAIA (International Coordination Council of Aerospace Industries Associations).
So far, each new generation of aircraft has had double-digit fuel efficiency improvements, up to 20% better than the previous one. This has led to today’s modern aircraft producing 80% less CO2 per seat than the first jets in the 1950s. The European aeronautical industry is investing huge sums together with its public partners in research and development (€7.6bn in 2020 alone despite very challenging economic circumstances) to further reduce the CO2 impact of aviation. This can be achieved through a range of measures, from improving conventional propulsion systems, combined with increasing use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (for long distances), via the introduction of new propulsion technologies including hydrogen (for medium-range distances) or electric aircraft (for short distances), to improvements in air traffic management (ATM) and aircraft operations. Until the sector can fully decarbonize, smart economic measures such as the ICAO CORSIA system will also play a key role to reach net zero targets by offsetting the remaining emissions.
Just as with safety, also sustainability in aviation is only feasible with the permanent improvement of technology, which needs investments. Therefore, on one hand it takes a state-of-the-art industry with extremely innovative companies and highly skilled employees as we do have in Europe, on the other hand aviation should become soon eligible under the EU Taxonomy in the context of the sustainable finance.
The strategic importance of the aerospace industry for Europe
The European aerospace industry is of strategic relevance. Without it, Europe would depend on third-country providers to merely maintain a certain level of air traffic – thus creating vulnerability and dependence on external actors in a fundamental part of our economy. Additionally, if there was no European development and production of aircraft, helicopters, engines and their components, we would not be able nor to shape neither to understand latest technological trends. For both safety and sustainability, Europe would not be a maker of innovations but a taker of what has been developed in other parts of the world.
Given the huge complexity of aeronautical products and the industrial cycle behind it (from basic research to manufacturing), if the industrial base was lost, it would be hardly possible to build it up again, and almost certainly not as a global leader like the European aeronautical industry is today. In this respect, we must also not forget its large economic importance supporting more than 370,000 jobs across Europe directly in the sector and many more indirectly.
Therefore, it is key to maintain and enhance the industry’s competitiveness when it comes to quality of research and development, qualified personnel, production costs, supply of critical raw materials etc. This requires a close and trustful cooperation with governments, public agencies, academia and research institutes (good example are the Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking, SESAR and the Clean Hydrogen Partnership). At the same time, policy measures both at the national and European level which affect the aviation sector should always take into consideration to what extent they might have an impact on the global level-playing field and possibly unintentionally harm the European aeronautical industry.
Regarding the strategic significance of the aeronautical industry, we should also keep in mind that it can never be considered as an isolated sector. In fact, it forms a unique industrial ecosystem together with the space, defence and security industry with mutual spill-over effects, interdependencies and synergies across domains. Therefore, very often, innovations made in one area are also beneficial for one or several others. For instance, efficient propulsion systems in new-generation fighter jets can also help to reduce emissions of civilian aircraft. A new drone originally developed for commercial reasons might also support search & rescue missions after natural disasters. And modern air traffic management, allowing routes able to reduce consumption and pollution, is only possible thanks to state-of-the art satellite systems. There are numerous examples like this from the past and present and there are many more to come in the future. Thus, supporting the aeronautical industry also means to promote Europe’s sovereignty and security.
To sum it up, the European aeronautical industry is of strategic value for Europe and an asset for the daily lives of all Europeans. It is a huge economic factor for our continent and technologically a worldwide leader thus benefitting also other domains. Besides its key role to connect businesses and people around the globe, it is a crucial factor in our common endeavour to make air travel carbon-neutral by 2050.
This would allow us to realise once more a dream that seemed impossible not too long ago: the vision of net-zero emission air travel.
An investment in “our freedom and our democracy”
In the extraordinary session of the German Bundestag on the occasion of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of a turning point (‘Zeitenwende’): “The world after is no longer the same as the world before. At its core is the question of whether power can break the law.” Scholz asked the members of the Bundestag in plenary: “What capabilities does Putin's Russia have? And what capabilities do we need to counter this threat - today and in the future?” In doing so, he focused on a powerful, state-of-the-art and advanced Bundeswehr: “One thing is clear: we need to invest significantly more in the defence of our country in order to protect our freedom and our democracy!” Chancellor Scholz announced a “great national effort” with significant additional funding for the military. The Bundeswehr is to be provided with an additional 100 billion euros as part of a special fund. These additional resources will not be used for rearmament, but rather to compensate for the Bundeswehr's equipment deficits that have arisen in recent years.
Alessandro PROFUMO, CEO of Leonardo S.p.a. and president of AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD).