Pandemic Likely to Delay New Aircraft Developments for Years

 - July 22, 2020, 2:47 PM
New regional aircraft designs might come to fruition before larger commercial aircraft as OEMs and manufacturers focus on recovering from the pandemic downturn, according to Embraer Commercial Aviation president and CEO Arjan Meijer. (Photo: David McIntosh)

The Covid-19 pandemic downturn will delay any major developments for new aircraft by at least three to four years while the commercial aircraft manufacturing and airline sectors focus on recovery, leading commercial aviation executives believe. Even then, derivatives of existing aircraft appear more likely unless "disruptive" technologies come to fruition.

Speaking during an FIA Connect 2020 webinar titled “Commercial Aircraft: the Next Generation” Wednesday, Embraer Commercial Aviation president and CEO Arjan Meijer characterized both the OEMs and airlines as “patients” that need to recover over the next several years and said he doesn’t see investments in significant capital-intensive programs during that span. Embraer has managed through the current timeframe with delays in aircraft orders rather than cancellations, Meijer noted, adding that the regional airline sector likely would recover first, raising the likelihood that aircraft designed for those operators also come first. 

Emirates Airline president Timothy Clark agreed with the three- to four-year timeframe but added that manufacturers should wait to see how developments in new technologies play out, particularly as airlines come under increasing pressure to practice sustainability.

Given the increasing regulatory and political requirements, manufacturers need to be careful to ensure what they design now can become sustainable programs over several decades, said Steven Udvar-Házy, executive chairman of the board for Air Lease Corporation. The effect of environmental politics is huge, Udvar-Házy added. “We have to be very mindful of this trend,” he said, adding that politicians cannot dictate design and operational parameters. “Otherwise, we’d have catastrophic results on the airline industry,” he warned.

The technology produced will dictate future designs, the executives agreed. They also believe such advances can come from non-traditional sources. Clark suggested that the industry reach out to other groups, such as automotive experts, to look at innovations.

“The disruption in design concept is not going to come from Boeing and Airbus,” Udvar-Házy said. “It’s going to come from smaller, innovative players.” Such players might not ultimately enjoy financial success but will drive innovation, he added.

The global pandemic will prove to become another factor in future designs. “With the pandemic, we have a whole new landscape in terms of passenger health concerns. That is going to be a gray area,” noted Udvar-Házy. “For a little while, I don’t see any manufacturers willing to make a bet on a specific configuration.” New technologies will more likely come on the propulsion side, he added.

Without such technologies, manufacturers might continue to prefer the derivative approach, because clean sheet designs run in the tens of billions of dollars for large airliners and carry much more risk, they agreed. “I’m not optimistic about airframers getting their teeth in new aircraft,” Clark said. “There’s no appetite for that at the moment.”

But in the aftermath of the Boeing 737 Max accidents, certification processes even for derivatives will prove much more rigorous, they added. “There has been a certain amount of relaxation,” Clark said. With lessons learned from the Max, though, “that has come back with a vengeance.”

As for new entrants from China, the panel participants agreed that several obstacles remain. While the desire, commitment, and resources might exist, China’s ability to continue to benefit from technology and knowledge transfer from the West has tightened, according to Udvar-Házy. “The willingness of the Western world to partner with China has diminished significantly in the last 12 months,” he noted.

“The Chinese are hugely aspiring to be a major player in aerospace,” Clark said. But the Emirates boss added that their decision to take a route of importing Western technologies could prove to be a disadvantage in the long run. “I’m not convinced what they have actually produced is more than a reverse-engineered DC-9 or A320," he said. "They’ve got a long way to go before they can satisfy certain Western markets that the aircraft design, construction, regulation, certification, operations, and after-sales support are up to the likes of what the Western [companies] are producing today.”

The Chinese might realize their aspirations, but they compromised their ability to do so by “fast-tracking” with existing technology. “They really need to start building their own airframes,” Clark said.

Another “major failure” on the part of the Chinese centers on aftermarket sales support, Udvar-Házy said. “They have just not built the global infrastructure…to support their customers outside of China,” he said.