There’s no sugar coating it, 2021 has been another dismal year for aviation and aerospace. FINN editor-in-chief Alan Peaford finds a couple of bright spots to look forward to in 2022.

2021 – if there was a highlight I must have blinked.

It’s a journalistic tradition to take a pause during December and review the past year to see what lessons there were to be learned and where the momentum is taking us for the year ahead.

Even last year as the aviation and aerospace sectors recorded their most dismal year on record, there was an optimism that the troubles would soon be over; that the mish-mash of knee-jerk travel regulations made up by panicking governments around the world would stop with the roll-out of vaccines; and 2021 would see our problems go away, allowing passengers to get on where they left off and take to the skies again.

Juddering stop-start recovery… followed by spread of Omicron variant

So, here we are, 12 months on having witnessed a juddering series of stop-start recovery attempts and looking down the smoking barrel of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 and wondering…what do we do now?

Governments such as India closed international borders; the US, having only just reopened borders, tightened restrictions; the UK played with traffic lights as airlines, airports and their customers threw their hands up in despair.

As the year draws to a close, the airline association IATA has its economists scribbling on proverbial fag-packets to revise its 2022 projections – announced in October – that net industry losses would reduce to $11.6 billion after a $51.8 billion loss in 2021, figures that began to look rather optimistic as the latest variant took hold in the major markets. Uncertainty hits output. Whole supply chains flounder.

Shareholders demand fast action on climate

If Covid wasn’t enough to keep CEOs awake at night, the other big C, climate, was adding to the night-time sweats. Public, government, and shareholder focus swept across the industry in 2021 demanding fast action

A poll from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (ImechE) showed that the British public underestimate the contribution of heating their homes to UK greenhouse gas emissions but overestimate the relative importance of emissions from aviation.

With the global climate summit COP-26 bringing world leaders, pressure groups and industries together in Glasgow in September, aerospace bore a more than its fair share of attention – but there are clear signs that it is responding with 2021 seeing a host of “green” commitments and, perhaps more importantly, innovation.

Rolls-Royce leading the pathway to net zero

Government commitment with projects such as Jet Zero have inspired manufacturers and SMEs alike to respond. Leading the way for the UK has been Rolls-Royce with a whole series of initiatives. It outlined its pathway to net zero in June with steps including the development of new technologies, enabling an accelerated take-up of sustainable fuels and driving step-change improvements in efficiency.

One year on from joining the UN Race to Zero campaign, the company said it has plans to make all its new products compatible with net zero by 2030, and all products in operation compatible by 2050 – many of which power some of the most carbon intensive parts of the economy.

Electric power is one way, and the Derby company saw its ‘Spirit of Innovation’ aircraft propelled by a 400kW (500+hp) electric powertrain fitted with the most power-dense battery pack ever assembled for an aircraft, take to the skies for the first time in September. Two months later it lived up to its promise by breaking the world speed record for ANY electrically powered aircraft.

Other manufacturers like CFM have brought the engine-uity from its shareholders Safran and GE to take the open rotor engine a stage further with the launch of RISE – it stands for Revolutionary Innovation for Sustainable Engines – The RISE engines will be developed in Jet fuel/SAF and hydrogen burning versions.

MTU champions hydrogen

Germany’s largest manufacturer MTU is also pushing the boundaries. The company has launched its water enhanced turbofan (WET) engine. And is urging a switch to hydrogen “Hydrogen is a highly attractive future option for us as an engine producer,” said MTU’s Lars Wagner. The company is developing technology that will reduce NOx and remove contrails from an aircraft’s cruise.

Although only part of the solution, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) have been grabbing most of the limelight and Boeing, Rolls-Royce and World Fuels demonstrated that 100 per cent SAF is possible with a demonstration flight in October. Airlines such as Etihad, working with Boeing and now Airbus, developed eco-demonstrators to enable other top tier suppliers to test their sustainability products.

The sustainable push also reached space with Rolls-Royce and UK Space signing a contract to look at nuclear options for power solutions required in space in the decades to come. Space is a seen as growing sector where power, propulsion and thermal management will play a significant role.

Missions to Mars brought relief from Covid gloom

And certainly, looking beyond our planet was a welcome relief. Particularly in February when First the UAE, and then China arrived in the Red Planet’s orbit and finally the US landed with Perseverance delivering the first ever helicopter to fly on another planet (at least to the best of our knowledge).

While space remains our greatest exploration challenge it is also the greatest challenge to develop cooperation.

How that will work has been taxing the defence industry. During the pandemic it was business as usual and the UK’s future fighter aircraft programme, Tempest, went from strength to strength during the year with international partnership agreements between UK, Italy and Sweden being signed in January and a number of expressions of interest since then.

It was defence that got us back meeting in person again too with two of the largest defence events in the world – IDEX in Abu Dhabi, and DSEI in London – thrilling the industry with Covid-safe venues and an opportunity to see many innovations close up.

UAM sector brought some of 2021’s most exciting developments

For me, it has been the urban air mobility sector that has brought the most excitement. Embraer’s EVE eVTOL air taxi has been winning multi-aircraft contracts throughout the year from the US to Australia and the UK.

Another aircraft coming closer to reality is UK’s Samad Aerospace’s Starling. A cargo variant of the unmanned aircraft has flown as a prototype and an agreement was signed in November for production to begin with South Africa’s experienced OEM, Aerosud.

While there have been winners in 2021, there have been losers too. Aerion, the innovator behind what should have been the first successor to Concorde finally called it a day, despite having the support of OEMs to develop the technology – the high cost of certification for a project that has already cost hundreds of millions proved too much. A challenge that might well face our UAM hopefuls.

Aviation risks losing skilled professionals to other industry sectors

As we head in 2022 one challenge that faces us right across the whole of the aerospace and defence industries is people.

Alexander Binks, managing director of AVPlacements, told FINN that the pandemic has left many aviation professionals looking for alterative paths given the last 18 months of uncertainty within the sector. This has led to a candidates looking to diversify away from aviation into currently more stable sectors.

Because of our, albeit unjust, reputation as polluters, we will find it harder to recruit the younger generation. Also, the way some employers have treated staff in the sector as it contracted has also meant the industry becomes less attractive.

According to Binks there is a widely held view that spring of 2022 will bring a new lease of life to the sector and with more ecological avenues being pursued by aviation from biofuel, higher efficiency airframes and lower emission powerplants we could shake off our image to welcome back passengers to travel again, guilt free.

So, with a triumph of hope over experience, let’s keep calm, carry on and with a fair wind we may have a better year to remember when looking back in 12 months’ time.

Happy New Year!

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