Peak Airline – A Thought Experiment

By Marcus Carr

Thought experiment: the reason the aviation industry is slow to act on 4-Dimensional Trajectory Management (4DTM) is that there's a widespread but unspoken acknowledgement that covid hastened the passing of 'peak airline' and if it'll take 10 years to implement, it'll be a waste of resources. It’s best to turtle instead and keep all you can during the inevitable winding down and replacement of the industry.

Hmmm. It didn’t sound so much like a conspiracy theory when I was only saying it in my head, but let’s push on and see where it leads, shall we? First, a bit about 4DTM. Instead of touching on the data standards, technology, integrations required between organisations, and other equally dry topics, I’ll just paint a picture.

Imagine a modern city with drones constantly in sight in the skies. One can tell just by looking at the precisely coordinated movements that there are no pilots – this ballet is being run centrally and by computer. Everything from pizza deliveries to people moving to cross-town cargo shipping is moving smoothly, with barely any noticeable variation in speed or direction. It’s a pleasure to watch.

Although it’ll need to be other things during the transition, this is what 4DTM is eventually going to be. The system that coordinates everything. Forget about this being science fiction – all the necessary components already exist, including data standards, regulatory frameworks, and technology. 4DTM should be in development now and indeed the drone industry is progressing with it, but IATA and the airlines aren’t.

One might ask why when the benefits to the airline industry would be massive. In 2019, IATA declared the cost of delays to the industry to be $60bn. A large proportion of that would have been fuel being burnt inefficiently – holding at low altitude over the destination airport, inefficient climbs and descents, and inefficient routes because of geopolitical strife. Properly choreographed traffic from gate to gate would eliminate that, saving the industry tens of billions of dollars a year. Oh yeah, there’s also that little matter of the intersection between the drone industry and the airline industry, particularly over metropolitan centres at first, but ever-increasing as the range of drones increases, as we know it will.

Enough background – let’s get into the experiment. Once an industry peaks, patterns in investment, R&D and general vibrancy change immediately and noticeably. A case in point is the fossil fuel industry – virtually the moment that peak oil was passed, investment in high-tech solutions such as offshore and oilsands recovery plunged and the focus was moved to even more environmentally questionable approaches such as fracking. Why? Because given that no long-term investment is required, the returns are good enough. The industry is winding down, so it’s taking what it can get.

So where are we seeing that in the airline industry? Passing up 4DTM looks a lot like a move away from long-term investment, despite how lucrative it could be. Instead, the focus is on restoring passenger numbers post-Covid and moving toward Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). The airline industry was only barely viable in 2019, which was unquestionably one of its best years. Margins were razor-thin and most airlines were operating at a loss. Even if we tried to believe that airline travel hasn’t been permanently changed by Covid, getting back to 2019 passenger numbers wouldn’t help – it would change the industry from being a train wreck to teetering on a cliff. It’s hardly what you’d aspire to for the long-term – it smells like the equivalent of fracking. Same for SAF – touting the burning of recycled carbon without addressing the very non-neutrality of the production system won’t work for long. In the long term, burning carbon-based fuel will end. You might not know when, but you know it will.

So to recap, the airline industry is shying away from long-term investment in itself, despite there being massive benefits available. It’s also capitulating to the technological pace set by the drone industry and it’s very difficult to interpret that as strategic. Instead, it’s focusing on getting as many passengers back in the sky for as long as the SAF story holds up for. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Peak Airline.

More Articles Like This?