FlightPlan broadcast kickstarts aviation’s post-Covid FlightBack

Inmarsat and APEX’s online event brought together the great and the good of the aviation sector.

All industries have been dealt a series of severe blows by the current Covid-19 pandemic. Aviation has suffered more than most. That’s why at a time of stasis and disorientation, Inmarsat Aviation joined forces with APEX to develop FlightPlan, a unique one-day online broadcast that looked to connect the industry in lieu of the many cancelled aviation events.

Held at the end of April, more than 3,000 people watched FlightPlan live from almost 100 countries worldwide, with thousands more expected to catch-up on demand in the coming weeks. The average view time was 144 minutes, showing deep engagement, and the event also facilitated more than 100 meetings in the virtual networking area, making it a clear and resounding success.

Industry experts and analysts came from the likes of Airbus, Air Transport Action Group, Avianca, Collins Aerospace, Deutsche Telekom, European Space Agency (ESA), Honeywell, IATA, Japan Airlines, Panasonic Avionics and Rolls-Royce

Inmarsat Aviation Vice President Dominic Walters hosted the event and described the response as phenomenal. Together, more than 50 leading voices shared a clear message,” he stated. “That while the aviation industry contends with a period of extreme uncertainty, these clouds will eventually clear. Now is the time to focus on accelerating our recovery and rebuilding an industry that is stronger, more agile and fit for the future.”

The feedback from viewers was universally positive too. "Thank you for inspiring us, and help us love again our jobs in this difficult quarantine times. Great team work,” wrote Gonzalo Monterrosa, flight dispatcher at Crossracer. "Great to see the industry stalwarts in one platform, sharing their thoughts for charting a turbulent free post COVID-19. Well done Team FlightPlan," added Kuwait Airways’ Pradeep Gangadharan. “Thank you so much to everyone that worked on this broadcast,” concluded Saudi Arabian Airlines’ Sultan Asiri.

The event is now available to watch online and below are the highlights

Introduction

FlightPlan kicked off at 9am (BST) on the dot. Presented by Dominic Walters in a London studio, and co-hosted by APEX’s CEO Dr Joe Leader in Atlanta, FlightPlan got off to a suitably rousing start as the event is framed as a platform to connect. Much is made of industry players rallying around to support each other.

Walters strikes a positive tone as he remarks: “There will be a recovery. Planes and passengers will take to the skies again.” This is echoed emphatically by Leader, who describes FlightPlan as an opportunity to “FlightBack against Covid-19.” He says the industry now has the opportunity to leverage technology to “emerge stronger than ever.”

Where the aviation industry stands today – and what’s next

IATA’s Senior Vice President, Airport Passenger Cargo and Security, Nick Careen is first to address this topic, describing the Covid-19 crisis as without parallel in recent memory. “No industry could have been prepared for such a disorderly shutdown,” he says. Careen also puts a positive spin on things, stating aviation is a far more resilient industry than it was even five or ten years ago.

He suggests certain aviation standards will have to change post Covid-19: the boarding process, movement will be restricted on the plane, there will be widespread adoption of masks for passengers, greater adoption of biometric and self-service tools will be utilised more.

“We need to illustrate to the general public that we have this,” he comments. “That we have all the right things in place to instil consumer confidence.”

Aviation journalists Seth Miller and John Walton then discuss the future of passenger experience. They examine a variety of subjects from blocked middle seats to the future of IFE and connectivity.

Both are cautiously optimistic that despite some inevitable airline closures the industry will return eventually. “We’re years away from returning to pre-Covid-19 levels,” concludes Miller. “But enough people will want to travel. It’s (aviation) just going to look different.”

The news from Asia Pacific

The first of three news interludes during the day looked at some of the stories coming out of the Asia Pacific region. Presented by Maryann Simson, Director of APEX Media, and Alex Preston, Editor of Inflight Magazine, they look at some initiatives adopted in China in an attempt to kick-start consumer confidence, including vastly reduced ticket prices, paying for vouchers that can be redeemed later and the use of PPE amenity kits. Renaming airlines associated with the pandemic is also mooted.

AirAsia’s new crew uniforms are, ahem, uniformly welcomed.

Covid-19: Impact on aviation industry and key learnings from past crises:

Air Transport World’s European Editor, Victoria Moores, hosts this lively debate. She begins by describing Covid-19 as a mix of all the recent crises to hit aviation – the 2010 volcanic ash clouds, SARS, the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit and 9/11 – rolled into one.

The first expert to speak is Christoph Mueller, the former Chief Digital and Innovation Officer at Emirates Group and CEO Malaysia Airlines. Moores asks Mueller what characteristics make a resilient company, the likes of which will help them navigate their way through a crisis such as the one we are experiencing now, both in the short and long term?

Mueller identifies three main factors of resilience – particularly in an airline:

1) The velocity with which decisions are taken and executed. In comparison to previous crises it’s almost a drill – all airlines in all continents have reacted extremely swiftly – didn’t wait for the next board meeting

2) Strength of balance sheet – amount of cash an airline might have or the assets it has that will serve as collateral in case they need to raise funds

3) This is largely underestimated – communication. The way airlines talk to staff/employees but also how they talk to their customers. Mueller says he’s seen good examples of both.

Mueller goes on to highlight lessons that have been learned from previous crises, such as the ones Moores outlined earlier.

Moore wonders whether there is a winning strategy that he can discern. Mueller says there isn’t one, pointing to how unique the situation is for each airline, each country and each continent. “It’s a case-by-case basis,” he says.

He concludes that aviation is a difficult market for investors at present “but I have a lot of confidence that at least a lot of airlines will come out of this crisis with a new and regained strength of their balance sheets and make a good investment proposal.”

Futurologist and CEO of research and insights business Fast Future, Rohit Talwar is next to be quizzed by Moores. He talks about a survey he’s conducted in conjunction with Future Travel Experience. The research examines Covid-19, the industry’s response to it and some future strategies.

He points towards an increase in digital transformation as being one way of securing economic recovery and calls for industry collaboration over any fragmented or disjointed approach.

Following this, Leader asks Avianca CEO, Anko Van Der Werff, what the new normal will be? Van Der Werff acknowledges that more biometrics and changes to the boarding process are needed. He believes the integration of technology is even more important in the wake of this crisis.

In a Q&A session at the end of the discussion, Moores asks Leader, Mueller and Inmarsat Aviation President Philip Balaam about the current state of aviation. All are cautiously optimistic. Not least Leader who points out that in the US, the low point for flights was April 17. He says numbers are up 50% since then. He also says wearing face masks on flights could be the shot of adrenaline needed for consumer confidence. All agree that 80% of pre-Covid numbers will be the new normal.

A question about how aviation will handle any future pandemics elicits this response from Leader: “Cleanliness will be embedded in aviation culture.”

The debate so far is garnering a number of positive responses…

Sustainability in Aviation

The good news to come from this pertinent discussion is that despite the current crisis it’s clear aviation sustainability is not off the agenda.

Michael Gill, the Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), argues climate change should remain front and centre of discussions when we return. He argues travel is not the enemy and calls for collective action on this challenge.

Van Der Werff concurs, saying “the whole ecosystem needs to work together on this.”

In an interview with Alex Preston, Rolls-Royce’s Chief Technical Officer Paul Stein says “the post-COVID-19 world is going to be one that will recognise the fragility of the planet… sustainability isn’t just going to come back to the point it was before COVID - it’s going to be an even stronger issue.” 

He also acknowledges that all aviation stakeholders have to put aside any competitive ambitions and push for a plan  that “drives down the environmental impact of aviation.”

Sylvie Sureda-Perez, Inmarsat’s Senior Director of Datalink Solutions, highlights how the Iris programme can help enable aviation’s green initiatives.

Runway Girl reports on Airbus’ drives towards sustainability.

One delegate is impressed with Airbus’ proposals for sustainability.

News from the Middle East & Europe

The second news segment examines the Middle East and Europe’s response to this crisis. With news of aircraft production being cut at Airbus and job losses at British Airways, our anchors Maryann Simson and Alex Preston note the severity of the situation. But there are rays of hope.

The inventive proposal for a middle seat – the Janus seat – is one solution at getting around the high density configuration of aircraft.

It's also reported that Emirates is the first airline to begin testing passengers for Covid-19 before boarding.

Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom’s revolutionary European Aviation Network (EAN) inflight broadband solution is hailed for improving throughput rates to the aircraft by up to 30-35%, all within one year of becoming commercially available to passengers.

Vision of a Digital Future

Inmarsat’s Chief Executive Rupert Pearce and Philip Balaam host this informative section.

Pearce outlines the potential of a digital society to drive global development. The potential of artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing are all highlighted.

Although “2019 already feels as though it belongs to a different era”, Pearce remarks that the pandemic has not slowed the fourth industrial revolution. “I believe that digitalisation lies at the heart of our ability to first survive this crisis, and then to drive our ability to rebound from it and start to thrive in whatever new reality lies in front of us.”

Balaam says aviation should run towards this new normal and embrace the digital world. ‘Recovery will depend on a more effective, a more creative and a more digital approach. These are extraordinarily turbulent times for our industry. There will clearly be winners and losers. My conviction is that the survivors will take a strategic, agile and a technology-led approach, and they will be the ones to bounce back more quickly, and stronger,” he affirms.

The Future Passenger

More rays of hope emerge in the panel discussion around Generation Z and a new breed of passenger. Behavioural scientist Rory Sutherland notes this generational cohort’s predilection for travel, saying that they see this not as a privilege, but a right.

Aviation analyst Alex Macheras says airlines that cater to this group – of which he belongs – will succeed in the future. He explains that “inflight connectivity will continue to be a driving force.”

By now, it’s late in some parts of the world. But viewers in New Zealand are hooked!

The future of air travel technology

Panasonic Avionics’ Director of Aviation Sebastian Petry urges airlines to know their customers. Data, he says, can help deliver a better passenger experience.

Ingo Wuggetzer, Airbus’ Vice President Cabin Marketing, says a connected airline enables passengers to fly as they want. A fully personalised service offers more choice. Airlines know your preferences thanks to the rich data they hold. This helps with sustainability – meals can be dedicated to needs, with little or no waste. It also helps with predictive maintenance and pushes auxillary revenues.

Honeywell’s Product Line Leader Joshua Melin also acknowledges that IFC can improve operational efficiencies and passenger experience. “The more data you collect means the more insights you can provide,” he says.

The great Wi-Fi debate

Should IFC be free? How can airlines make money be offering a free model? Such questions are still to the fore. Inmarsat Aviation’s Phil Harvey says airlines have to get in the mindset of selling a la Amazon and Apple. “Make it easy,” he urges. “So they don’t have to reach for their wallet, or remember codes or passwords.”

Rory Sutherland argues that airlines should get imaginative with how they offer Wi-Fi, rather than just giving it away for free. Bundle it in with checked-in luggage or speedy boarding.

John Peterson, Honeywell’s Vice President Services and Connectivity, talks of airline passengers being a captive audience. Sutherland agrees, stating: “I always describe air travel as being the second Christmas, because whether you’re going through an airport or on a plane, it’s a time where everybody in parallel is under pressure to shop.”

News from the Americas

The big news is that 46% of passengers say they will be comfortable travelling as soon as the travel restrictions are lifted.

Dr Joe Leader pushes an important APEX announcement regarding face coverings.

Round up of the day

A positive day is brought to a close with the results of an interactive poll that has been running all day. Viewers/delegates have been invited to share their thoughts on the recovery phase. Below are some of the highlights – and there is still time to take part:

  • Four in ten (43%) predicted that recovery will take from 18 months to three years 
  • Four in ten (44%) said the industry was poorly prepared for COVID-19
  • Nearly two fifths (36%) stated that governments have helped the industry to navigate the pandemic, but could have done more 
  • 9 in 10 (87%) expect to see more deep cleaning and slower turnarounds  
  • 86% believe that personal protective equipment (PPE) will become standard for cabin crews in the coming months 
  • 8 in 10 (80%) expect thermal scanners to become part of the passenger journey 
  • Only 9% see blood tests for airline passengers becoming the norm 

A visibly weary Dom Walters says it’s been an extraordinary event. “It’s been an incredible day capping an incredible few months. I love this industry and we have the talent and the mindset to revitalise aviation.”

Leader agrees, saying he’s enjoyed the different perspectives. “It’s been a snapshot of everything our industry needs to know,” he states. “There is a lot of positivity coming through. This industry has always returned to full strength.”

The FlightBack starts here!

And in case you wondered how the event was put together, here are some bonus social media posts from behind the scenes: