The biggest threats to Aviation right now

Posted on Wed, 16/09/2020 - 10:04
Threats to Aviation

The aviation industry, as we may already have noticed, is heavily influenced by the effects of social, economic, geo-political and world health situations, be it directly or indirectly.

Current global security threats, uncertainty of fuel prices, cyclical trends of the economy, 'supply & demand', geo-political tensions such as 'Brexit', and of course, not forgetting, Covid-19, are all impacting aviation.

Global Security & Terrorism is a huge and ever present threat to this industry and seeks to harm the safety and harmony of all operations and restricting the freedom of travel. Using aviation  as a terror target is appealing to perpetrators because of the massive impact it can cause, with a potentially huge fatality level, and global media coverage and exposure. Aviation centric terrorism has been around for decades and has affected many countries, with victims from a huge variety of nationalities globally. Unfortunately with political instability in the Middle East, Asia and Russia, this is further heightened and could be volatile. A major effect of this is the fear of air travel and the increased financial investment in aviation security which raises costs.

The most notorious event, as you may have guessed, are the horrific events of September the 11th 2001 (9/11) hijackings, which were a turning point in history, because of the scale of the attack and also because now, aircraft themselves were being used as weapons, with the sole intent of killing all onboard and as many as possible on the ground. In the past, hijackings usually consisted of an onboard threat/takeover, resulting in a divert to a remote/specific airport according to the hijackers' demands, followed by hostage negotiations in return for money, freedom of a political leader/group or other politically driven reasons.

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As aviation is an inherently reactive industry, in that we learn from mistakes to ensure that bad things don't repeat themselves, 9/11 was no different. This changed the whole security protocol of global aviation. Airports all around the world adopted much stricter security procedures, such as more stringent security checks and tighter surveillance. Airlines did the same by implementing tougher procedures, such as retraining crew, strengthening the cockpit door and preventing any unauthorised/unlicensed persons from entering into the cockpit whilst the engines are running. As a child of the 90's, going on a plane meant that I could go and visit the cockpit during the flight, and it was the thing I looked forward to the most on a holiday. This all changed after 9/11 and unfortunately is a privilege that millennials won't be able to experience, unless they become pilots or cabin crew.

The threat still exists and is why all those who are involved in aviation need to be vigilant and aware at all times, adopting strict and safe practices which will produce and maintain the highest levels of safety, both onboard and on the ground. It is more important now than ever, especially with other news topics grabbing the headlines in the media, they can easily pose as a distraction to aviation security. If you see or sense anything suspicious, communicate it and report it, and most importantly, never drop your guard.

Terrorism isn't always in the form of hijackings and physical attacks. As the use of and dependence on technology, both on the ground and in the air, is increasing at a rapid rate, cyber terrorism is a colossal threat which could ground aviation very quickly. Data breaches such as airline computer systems being hacked into and customer details being stolen have occurred, and no doubt that there will be increased costs incurred by the airlines in trying to prevent these attacks, and much worse, from happening in the future by putting the appropriate security measures in place.

There are various other harmful threats that we have encountered as well, such as drones flying near airports causing major disruptions, environmentalists seeking to halt the smooth running of operations and damage aviation, and laser attacks, which can prove fatal to aircraft, especially during the critical phases of flight such as take- off and landing, especially at night.

Besides all of this, air travel is still the safest form of travel and is certainly not to be avoided, but to have knowledge and awareness of the terror threats means that we can make it an even safer industry.

Unpredictable Fuel Prices will always affect airlines and travel directly because, well, planes run off fuel, and as fuel is one of THE biggest costs for any airline operation, these costs will have to be taken by the airline, which usually results in it being passed down to the passengers in the form of ticket prices. Even with this knowledge, there are limited resources available to mitigate against the risks of a volatile oil market. Rising oil prices can cause a drop in profits, both in terms of increased costs and drop in ticket sales, thus severely affecting the balance sheet and health of an airline. Many global and regional situations can cause sporadic and volatile, unforeseen fluctuations in oil prices. What airlines can do is something called 'Fuel Hedging', in which airlines hedge the risk of a potential future rise in fuel prices. Airlines enter into a deal with the fuel companies by agreeing on a price for the following months or years. By striking this forward contract, both the airline and the fuel companies must be willing to possibly give up potential profits, in return for some certainty and security. This can be risky however for the airline, because if fuel prices drop soon after, then essentially the airline has lost potential profits, and the fuel company will have gained. Also, now the airline will be competing with other airlines who may not have hedged and are taking advantage of the lower fuel prices. The ideal scenario for the airline would be that the fuel prices increase and they have saved potential costs and thus have gained an advantage. In this scenario the fuel company will have lost out. Either way, there will always be a winner and a loser, but for the sake of the aviation industry, lower fuel prices for the airline would lower costs, and also be good for the passengers who may be able to take advantage of cheaper fares, IF the airline decides to pass those savings on to the passengers. This was notable during 2019, where some airlines who didn't hedge fuel earlier were caught victim to the rise in oil prices. Unfortunately, we have seen, in recent times, the demise of various airlines, and I have no doubt that high fuel costs have played a major part in it.

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Currently, due to the Covid situation having brought air travel to a standstill, thus causing a sharp drop in demand for oil, fuel prices have tumbled, but this is a whole different scenario where there aren't any winners as all parties are struggling.

Geo-Political Situations directly and indirectly impact airlines in many different ways. Decisions made my governments around the world affect the economy and social demographics. We have seen how tensions in the middle east  have caused security alerts and adoption of various protocols, and impacted oil prices, which then get passed on to the global consumers, including the aviation industry.

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No-Fly Zones and Danger Areas due to conflicts between nations are a logistical and operational nightmare for airlines, because flight paths and routes have to be adapted to comply with this, and most of the time it will mean adding extra track miles, and so time, to the route, thus increasing fuel burn and so increasing costs for the airline. Now multiply those costs by the number of flights per day that has to re-route around these conflict zones, and the figures soon add up. In addition to that, there is the risk of being caught up in these conflicts due to mistaken identity. We have witnessed this in the past, such as with the Malaysian MH17 incident and more recently the Ukraine International Airlines PS752 which was shot down in Iranian airspace unintentionally.

in 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain cut  diplomatic ties with Qatar, which resulted in the nations closing their airspace to their neighbour, Qatar. This severely restricted access for Qatar Airways flights, as Qatar only occupies a small sized airspace, and many  flights had to be re-routed, some of which had hours added on to their flight time. Although this didn't completely ground the airline, it caused major air traffic congestion, severe disruption, and a huge stress placed on the operations and flight planning department. No doubt that this was felt by passengers too, many of whom had their flights cancelled or re-booked with other airlines.

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Airspace restrictions are similarly likened to road works and closures along the quickest/optimal route, and the diversion may add many track miles to your journey, causing additional time to your journey and more money spent at the petrol station, not to mention if there is very poor weather or driving conditions along the diversion. It can all add to the impact.

Recently we have seen that Israel and the United Arab Emirates have signed a historic deal which allows air travel between the two nations, which up until now was disallowed.

International relations such as 'Brexit' have brought to the table a number of issues which could affect aviation in the UK and in Europe.

To name a few, Crew licensing regulations means that as it stands, the UK Civil Aviation Authority will no longer be under EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency), meaning that holders of a UKCAA licence/attestation may not be licensed to operate EU registered aircraft if EASA refuse to acknowledge UKCAA licences. For this reason many have opted to switch to EASA member state licences. The UKCAA, however, have stated that they will recognize all EASA state licences. These new changes will mean that airlines will have to work hard to ensure that all crew are compliant and regulations are adhered to.

'Brexit' could also mean a change to border controls and immigration rules such as free travel and visa exemptions no longer being valid. This means that passengers with a British passport wishing to travel around the EU, who at the moment can enter countries without having to get pre-applied visas and just walk straight through immigration gates, might have to apply and pay for a visa prior to travel. This would add to the travel costs of each individual, and also increase queues and waiting times at border control at airports, unless a strategy to provide expeditious and efficient cross border travel has been constructed and implemented.

European health insurance such as the EHIC may also be an issue, as it may not be valid from 2021 and so travelers will have to pre-arrange travel insurance, at an extra cost, before each trip. Again, this is yet another hurdle to free travel, because where at the moment, a European holiday more or less just entails booking a flight and accommodation, changing currency and then enjoying your trip, now means more barriers to cross to get to the actual holiday.

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Taxes also could play a part depending on what the governments decide, and may possibly be passed on to airlines and therefore passengers, such as airport taxes, passenger duty and in other areas of airline operations, leading to increased costs and potentially a rise in ticket prices.

'Brexit' is a tricky subject right now because nothing is certain at the moment, as at the time of this article being written, we are still in a transition period whereby all current regulations still stand while the governments are working to come to an agreement for after the transition period ends. Again it is the uncertainty which is proving to be a nuisance because if we knew exactly what was up ahead, then we as an industry could actively start preparing for it as best we can, by putting into place protocols and strategies to minimize the impact.

Relations among the US,UK, North Korea, China , Middle-East and Russia are another cause for concern, as these nations make the majority of the globe and can have knock-on effects on aviation by increasing security threat levels, heavily influencing Supply & Demand for travel, goods for businesses (import and exports), and global prices. Increased security threats correlates to increased controls and restrictions by authorities, and thus by airlines. In addition, there will be reluctance to travel by many people due to fear of an imminent attack, thus reducing demand for travel.

Soured relations and arising tensions affects global stock markets and trading, and can cause volatile reactions, leading to fluctuating prices and instability. Of course, this will hit aviation soon after, as  scores of businesses heavily use air travel for things such as travelling for business meetings, and more importantly, cargo transportation. If all of a sudden relations between two countries who have major, inter-dependent trade links with each other, sour, then it is a "no brainer" that this will pass down to the businesses and so could lead to a loss of custom and revenue for airlines who provide transportation and logistics for those companies.

General economic downturns cause a decrease in consumer spending, thus luxuries such as holidays are usually the first to be sacrificed by many, and also as foreign currency rates may be impacted, people may be reluctant to go to certain countries and instead opt for ones which give them a better exchange rate.

As you can see, there are a whole host of issues caused by situations around the world and so next time you see something on the news which you may think won't have an impact upon you as a colleague of the aviation industry, or as an air passenger, think again, because it could have more of an impact than you may think.

Incidents involving Onboard Disturbances and Unruly Behaviour have become far too frequent over the past few years, especially involving intoxicated passengers being aggressive and anti-social onboard aircraft, which is a criminal offense. Countless flights have had to be diverted, and even intercepted and escorted by military jets due to passengers onboard being violent and causing major disturbances. There is a zero tolerance approach to this sort of behaviour and will lead to prosecution.

Crew are trained in dealing with this sort of behaviour, and spotting signs of intoxication either prior to boarding, in which case they will be denied boarding, or in flight where they will refuse to serve alcohol to those suspect of teetering on their limit. However, if these passengers have brought their own alcohol onboard the aircraft, there isn't really a way of controlling consumption, and that's when the situation can turn. Simply banning alcohol from being sold to passengers would severely harm the profits of the airports, as duty free is one of their main sources of revenue, and also, why should the rest of the passengers, who are compliant, have to suffer by not being able to purchase alcohol. It's a tough situation and decisions have to be made.

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A method I thought of to combat this, which could be considered, is passenger purchase tagging. Currently, passengers are required to scan their boarding passes when making any purchases at the airport. This possible initiative could involve tracking any alcohol sales to each passenger as well, and when boarding the aircraft, their boarding pass has a marking that they have alcohol on them, or if it's a mobile pass then an alert when boarding at the gate. They could then be asked to hand over the alcohol for safe keeping in a designated locker/compartment onboard during the flight to then collect upon disembarkation at the other end. This way, the crew can be assured that passengers aren't consuming their own alcohol onboard and thus have more control over the situation, passengers can still make purchases to enjoy after the flight, whilst the airports continue to have business.

One thing is for sure though, the crew and fellow passengers onboard should not have to be exposed to this sort of despicable behaviour and we must maintain a zero tolerance approach on all levels.

Covid-19 is the dominating topic of concern at the moment as it has literally brought the world to a standstill. It is so fast changing that it is hard to keep with what's going on or make any plausible predictions or extrapolate and current trends. We have seen it ground aircraft and airlines with immediate effect, close borders and put countries into nationwide lockdown, impose travel restrictions even once lockdowns were lifted, put tens of thousands out of jobs, cut income and spending, and fill people with so much fear, that the fear itself became worse than the pandemic itself. It is no doubt that this is a turning point in not just the history of aviation, but the world. It is important that the correct steps are taken so that we emerge on the other side stronger and more resilient than ever. Aviation will play a major part in leading the charge out of this pandemic induced chaos, and we as an industry must be ready to act.

Understandably this is like nothing we have witnessed before, but having proved timed and time again in history, we as humans are highly resilient and resourceful, being able to adapt to any situation. It is in our DNA. We WILL come back strong from this, albeit into a different, but hopefully stronger, world than pre-Covid . Interestingly, corporate aviation has seen a 2% rise in July from the same month the previous year, and cargo has seen a 5% rise, especially with the transportation of PPE and with more consumer spending from home via e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, who have surged during this pandemic and are in fact expanding their aircraft fleet.

The desire to travel is still there for most and I am certain that once the situation recovers, we will see more confidence put back into air travel and travel as a whole, as long as we as an industry can reassure the world that we have taken the appropriate measures to ensure safe travel.

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The aviation industry truly is a weird and wonderful world. It is unique from most other industries, and one which only those within it can truly understand the beauty of. It can carry the world on its shoulders, quite literally, making the world go round, enabling connections between any corner of the globe within a matter of hours. A world which humankind once thought was so big that it was a place of unreachable far lands, has now become a small, reachable adventure land where the impossible is made possible. However, this industry is also a very delicate and vulnerable one, which is influenced and affected by countless factors such as those mentioned above, and more, and is one which more care and consideration needs to be given to by world governments and authorities on all levels so that it may be preserved and strengthened and not damaged. What a shame it would be to go back to a world where nations, holidays and loved ones are separated by days, weeks and months, instead of seconds, minutes and hours, or one where we can no longer, on the same day, have breakfast in London, lunch over the North Atlantic, and dinner in New York.

 

Thank you for reading and stay  safe,

Varon

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