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Aviation industry restart and safety resilience

By David Boyle | April 22, 2022

Although the global COVID-19 pandemic has now delivered the biggest and longest shock to ever hit the aviation industry, airlines continued to show resilience on the safety front last year.

Those were the messages delivered by senior representatives from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to virtual delegates at the second in a series of WTW aviation-related webinars hosted in this instance by David Boyle, Regional Director Asia, WTW Global Aerospace.

Some 26 months into the current pandemic, the green shoots of recovery are slowly becoming more visible as governments begin to relax border restrictions but, with geopolitical tensions on the rise and a potential surge of COVID’s Omicron variant, any recovery remains fragile.

Globally, commercial airlines are forecast to carry an average of 9.4 million passengers a day this year (2022), up from 6.2 million last year and from the nadir of 4.9 million seen in 2020, when the pandemic’s impact took hold of the industry, according to data shared by IATA’s Regional Director – Operations, Safety and Security (SFO) Asia Pacific, Blair Cowles.

Passenger traffic, which IATA measures in revenue-passenger kilometres (RPKs) flown, remained at 42% of pre-pandemic levels in 2021.

[With COVID-19], we have stayed behind pre-pandemic levels and are still only climbing very slowly up.”

Blair Cowles,
Regional Director – Operations, Safety and Security (SFO) Asia Pacific, IATA

“Other shocks, such as those from SARs and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, have significantly cut RPKs, but the industry has generally recovered within 16-18 months,” Cowles told delegates. “[With COVID-19], we have stayed behind pre-pandemic levels and are still only climbing very slowly up. COVID-19 has been exceptional for its depth and duration.”

While impact of the pandemic has been global, it did not hit all regions equally and they are not all recovering at the same pace.

The impact on the industry in Asia has been particularly severe due to a comparatively slower than average recovery. In the first 21 months of the pandemic, passenger numbers at the main ASEAN hub airports were down by nearly 90% compared to pre-pandemic levels.

In part, IATA measures the passenger recovery rates through an ‘Air Connectivity Index’, which quantifies how well-connected cities are to other cities. It is a composite measure reflecting the number of seats flown to various destinations and the relative importance of those destinations.

The Index shows that, globally, the connectivity level was at 48% in January this year (2022), or 48% of the levels recorded for the same month in 2019. For the Asia Pacific region, connectivity remained about 20% of what it was in 2019.

Asia Pacific has so far lagged other regions and current forecasts indicate that there will continue to be a significant gap between it and other parts of the world for some time, according to Cowles.

This responsiveness has certainly permitted a resilient safety performance.”

Jose Fernandez,
Assistant Director Operations, Safety and Security, IATA

Despite trying times, the collaborative relationships forged between aviation stakeholders has made the industry more agile and quick to respond to the daily challenges, according to Jose Fernandez, IATA’s Assistant Director Operations, Safety and Security. “This responsiveness has certainly permitted a resilient safety performance, and the industry improved in several key safety metrics.”

Last year’s accident rate, at 1.01 per million sectors flown, was lower than the five-year rolling average of 1.23 compiled by IATA, Fernandez told the audience of actuarial and aviation experts. There were, however, still 26 accidents from commercial operations worldwide at the cost of 121 lives.

IATA’s accident category ‘Loss of Control Inflight’ (LOC-I) continued to be the cause of the most fatalities, with three accidents resulting in the loss of 75 lives.

IATA’s accident category ‘Loss of Control Inflight’ (LOC-I) continued to be the cause of the most fatalities, with three accidents resulting in the loss of 75 lives. ‘Controlled flights into terrain’ was the second-highest cause of fatal accidents. There were no accidents in the ‘runway/taxiway excursion’ category last year for the first time since IATA started tracking those numbers.

In the five years ending December 31, 2021, some 647 people have lost their lives to LOC-I-caused accidents, a fatality risk rate of 0.06 per million sectors flown.

While the industry’s fatality rates maintained their downward five-year trend during the current pandemic, its endurance has given rise to other challenges for the aviation industry to manage.

During their presentations, Cowles and Fernandez flagged up eight ‘emerging and evolving risks’ for airlines (most were influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic), including:

  • Unruly passengers
  • Mental wellbeing
  • An increased number of basic mistakes
  • Competence of personnel
  • Shortage of personnel
  • Cyber security
  • Reduced financial resources
  • High-energy devices and PEDs

More were published in a recent report from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.

Fernandez said there were many factors affecting the wellbeing of operational crews, including long periods of inactivity, furloughed personnel returning to work, extensive quarantine periods (some crewmembers are reported to have experienced 200 days of quarantine in a 12-month period), crew fatigue or extended periods of duty.

A recent survey jointly published this year by Goose Recruitment and Flight Global, and cited by IATA during the webinar, asked operating personnel to describe their recent state of mind; 26% of respondents reported being ‘worried and anxious’, 28% were ‘stressed’ and 34% ‘frustrated’.

While those numbers had improved this year over 2021 responses, they are still a long way from painting a picture of strong mental health among a safety-critical demographic in the aviation sector.

“The mind is the most difficult ‘system’ to assess when looking at the essential needs for a pilot or an [air-traffic control officer] to discharge their tasks safely,” said Fernandez. “Mental health conditions are very difficult to identify because denial and dissimulation are constant, which are early symptoms of most such conditions.”

The mind is the most difficult ‘system’ to assess when looking at the essential needs for a pilot or an [air-traffic control officer] to discharge their tasks safely.”

Jose Fernandez | Assistant Director Operations, Safety and Security, IATA

The panel’s conversation then turned to what is potentially the biggest emerging risk to ‘business as usual’ across the industry: climate change. At IATA’s annual general meeting in October, the industry committed to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, bringing it into line with the objectives of the UN’s Paris Agreement which sought to limit the average rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C.

Cowles said, for that pledge to succeed, it will take the “coordinated efforts of the entire industry” through a combination of maximising the elimination of emissions at source, some offsetting and carbon capture technologies.

According to Cowles, IATA projects that 65% of the contribution to achieving net zero will come from the adoption of sustainable aviation fuels, 13% from new technologies such as electric and hydrogen propulsion, 3% from infrastructure and operational improvements, and 19% from offsets and carbon capture.

“We work with a lot of airlines, as well as national and international authorities, to find ways to squeeze every efficiency we can out of the aviation system, particularly on long-haul routes,” Cowles said. “Given the current unavailability of airspace, that is proving extremely challenging at the moment.”

A panel of experts convened by WTW took a deeper dive into how aviation is responding to the potential challenges brought about by climate change in the fourth session of this webinar series for airlines.

The ‘state-of-the-industry’ webinar series scheduled by WTW, supported the aviation sector by providing an opportunity for the industry to convene and discuss a broad spectrum of risk and insurance issues in what are proving to be challenging times for airlines.


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Regional Director, Global Aerospace Asia


Thomas Saltsman
Senior Vice President and Airline Practice Leader, North America

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