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The future of aviation: The only way is up

When COVID-19 caused the world to stand still in March 2020, one of the industries hit hardest was without a doubt the aviation industry. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), passenger air transport measured as revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs) was down 90 % year-on-year in April 2020 and was still down 75 % in August 2020. The shock that came so suddenly to the industry resulted in many airlines – including some of Europe’s most prominent flag carriers – requesting substantial economic support from governments.

“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward” – Leonardo da Vinci

Will the industry take to the skies again? As the world begins to feel the impact of large-scale vaccination campaigns, the situation should improve over 2021 but IATA still forecasts heavy losses. 2022 is more likely when the real recovery can begin, a year that several prominent economists have predicted will herald the start of a new ‘Roaring Twenties’ as the world celebrates and indulges after the shadow of COVID has receded. For many people, an enthusiastic return to international travel and tourism will be at the top of the list when it becomes possible to do this safely again. So yes, aviation will live to fly another day. For the EU, aviation is a strategically important industry, where pre-COVID it contributed EUR 300 billion (or around 2.1 % of GDP) to the European economy, as well as supported close to 5 million jobs. And because it’s such a strategic industry, the EU is very much invested in the future of aviation. In particular, the EU’s Aviation Strategy is a milestone initiative to generate growth for European businesses, foster innovation and let passengers profit from safer, cleaner and cheaper flights. At the same time, with the EU’s ambitious plans to be carbon-neutral by 2050 through the European Green Deal, there is also much interest in further transitioning aviation into a truly greener industry, for example through the proposed revision of the Emissions Trading System (ETS) Directive, planned for 2021. Finally, the EU recognises cutting-edge innovative research to help achieve a greener, safer and more efficient aviation sector overall. The 2011 Flightpath 2050 vision (which several of the projects showcased in this special feature reference) set out key research policies to be achieved by 2050, including how to preserve Europe’s global leadership in the sector, as well as cutting CO2 emissions by 75 % by mid-century. Horizon 2020 has been an important pillar in driving aviation research forward towards meeting these goals, with one prominent example being the Clean Sky Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership between the European Commission and the European aeronautics industry that coordinates and funds projects to deliver significantly quieter and more environmentally friendly aircraft. The seven projects featured in this month’s special feature highlight clearly and positively how the aviation industry can and will evolve over the coming years, guided by excellent EU-funded research and in spite of the pandemic that effectively brought the industry to a grinding halt in 2020. Indeed, the only way is up… Willing to gain even more altitude? Then tune in to our CORDIScovery podcast episode on the future of aviation and listen to our three guests go into even greater depth on their exciting projects. And if you like what you hear, then please do subscribe to help CORDIScovery soar to even greater heights! We look forward to receiving your feedback. You can send questions or suggestions to editorial@cordis.europa.eu.

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