The airline business is constantly changing. Whether it's developments in technology or changes to improve customer experience and comfort, the industry is always innovating. Already, companies such as Delta and American Airlines are investing more in innovative technologies, such as electric planes, so it’s clear that the future of flying is closer than we
To gaze into this particular crystal ball, we spoke to self-confessed airline
geek Parker Davis to discuss the battles the industry is currently facing and what the future may hold for flying. Parker is Editor-in-Chief of Airline Geeks, a news site that analyses global travel developments. He joined the company in 2016 and is an aviation expert, having written numerous articles on the topics shaping airline news.
Following investment announcements from the likes of Delta and American Airlines, what do you make of eVTOLs? Do you think they’ll be popular?
I'm generally skeptical of eVTOLs, especially in the way major airlines are approaching them. When you think about the basic technology, the switch to electric aircraft, I'm certain there will be continued investment. But airlines today are investing in companies that are making relatively small aircraft — sometimes you'll see them called "air taxis" because they're not quite planes — because that is what the first generation of technology will allow. And I'm skeptical of the ability of American, Delta and United to get into the four- to 10-seat short-range air taxi market. Down the line, if battery technology improves to the point that an aircraft morecomparable to a regional jet is possible, I'll be much less skeptical. But until then, I don't think airlines will see a massive success story in eVTOLs.
Recently there has been some controversy around seat sizes on aircraft, with the FAA conducting a review into new safety standards, including seat dimensions. Do you think it is more important that airlines offer comfortable seating or keep fares low by having less legroom?
Fundamentally, the problem with seat size is that passengers keep buying them, no matter how small they get. You've seen that with how much ticket prices skyrocketed this summer. You didn't hear complaining about seat sizes. People wanted to travel, and they wanted to fly. As a traveler, of course I want airlines to keep seats a comfortable distance apart. Because I'm based in Dallas, I'm a frequent flyer on American Airlines. And if I woke up tomorrow and American had shaved three inches of pitch off of all of the seats in their fleet, I'd take my business elsewhere. So I don't think you can say the onus is on the airlines because they're going to keep providing a product if passengers keep buying it. Once you start talking safety, though, that's a whole new issue. I don't know enough about safety so will leave that to the FAA, but if the FAA says that seats with, say, less than 30 inches of pitch are unsafe, then it's the responsibility of the FAA to step in.
During the pandemic airlines were obviously dealt a massive financial blow and had to adapt quickly to constantly changing rules and regulations. What do you think, if any, will be the lasting effects of Covid-19 on the industry?
One of the most important ones, I think, is a staffing shortage, in particular a pilot shortage. Airlines were already staring down a potential problem back in 2019, but after payroll support payments from the government ran out, airlines were so desperate to shave staffing costs that they pushed for furloughs and early retirement packages. This past summer, we saw the first round of that come back to bite airlines, as passengers came back in force, but airlines couldn't get enough people to fly the planes. That stretch led to thousands of delays and cancelations but has the potential to be just the beginning because of how Covid exacerbated the issue. If airlines are unable to bring in the pilots they need in the coming years and that continues to restrict growth throughout the industry, I think we'll look back to Covid-19 as the first time we — travelers, that is — really felt the problem.
Several airlines, including Delta and United, are now announcing a return to profitability. Do you think the industry is finally out of the woods or could inflation and the rise in cost of living deal another blow to the sector?
These sorts of predictions are so difficult because I really see both sides to it. Fundamentally, I think airlines will be fine. I think that, since we're somewhat removed from the whipsaw that Covid-19 brought to the industry, airlines are going to continue to grow over the next few years as they did in the few years preceding 2020, much more steadily. Of course, that will all go out the window if what has proven to be somewhat persistent inflation becomes the spark for a much larger recession. In a case like that, where business and leisure travel do pull back, I think airlines could be at risk because of the extraordinarily high debt loads that some of the airlines are now carrying. Now I don't that's in the cards where we currently stand, but I'm sure it's something that airlines are looking at as a potential reality.
If you had a crystal ball, what predictions would you make for the airline industry 50 years from now? Do you think factors such as sustainable fuels and the rise in online meetings will have a pronounced effect on the industry going forwards?
Oh my gosh. I can't even make predictions on what the airline will look like a year from now, but I'll give it a shot. I think what this summer showed us is that people love to travel. Going hand-in-hand with that is the fact that the growth of the "online meeting," as you put it, has given workers so much more flexibility to travel while they work. So I don't think there's ever going to be any complete shift away from that travel. With regard to technology, who knows where we'll be. Once you start talking about a 50-year horizon, I think electric aircraft start to enter the picture. Companies are starting to pour billions of dollars into battery projects for electric vehicles and a transition toward cleaner energy that I would be surprised to see the industry not move in that direction.