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Passengers are afraid to fly. The right tools could help airlines woo them back

For an industry flush with success at the start of 2020, it’s remarkable how quickly commercial aviation went into a nose dive because of the COVID-19 health crisis, which has left most of the world’s airlines and countless equipment manufacturers in severe financial distress. 

In the short term, “the threat to the airline industry is grave,” Boeing CEO David Calhoun recently told NBC News. According to Calhoun, passenger traffic isn’t expected to rebound to its record 2019 levels for two to three years, with some airline executives anticipating a more pessimistic three-to-five-year recovery. For comparison, it took nearly three full years following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, for the airline industry to rebound, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.      

Carriers and their equipment and services suppliers are exploring how to fundamentally rethink their industry to make travelers feel safe again, even as industrialized countries are still trying to wrest control of the pandemic that continues to ravage other parts of the world. Ultimately, resuscitating commercial aviation must start by restoring public confidence in the industry’s ability to make the end-to-end travel experience as safe as possible.

Whatever combination of steps the aviation industry takes will be only as effective as its effort to inform would-be air travelers of those actions and how they’re perceived in aggregate. Even small missteps by carriers could slow the recovery, with passenger confidence the linchpin to success. This means that the stewardship of aviation’s delicate course correction will be extremely important; everything the industry does will need to be seen through the lens of passengers’ well-being, not the airlines’. 

As it is shaping up, layers of safety are what the flying public can expect to experience as they resume air travel. This includes mandatory face coverings, social distancing, passenger health checks in a growing number of airports, and in all probability the reconfiguration of aircraft cabin interiors. Moreover, how to convince air travelers that flying commercially is safe amid the virus’s spread is a challenge shared among all industry players. 

On this last point, key vendors to the airline industry are quickly stepping up by offering ready-to-go solutions to leverage simulation and modeling of “contamination dispersal” in aircraft cabins and airport terminals. These tools should help airlines figure out and demonstrate to passengers how they are minimizing community spread. 

The good news is that today, all modern passenger jets already have very sophisticated cabin air systems with hospital-standard high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, so air is cleaned and kept moving on a continuing basis. A greater sense of security, however, requires taking an additional step. Today, seeing the unseen—how air flows—can create more than a sense of safety but visible proof of safety. 

Tools that can do this have already proven their abilities in the ground fight against COVID-19. When China needed to erect several medical facilities earlier this year in response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Central South Architectural Design Institute Company of China undertook the task of erecting multiple makeshift hospitals on an accelerated timeline. In addition to the logistical challenge, an HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system that minimized the risk of exposing hospital staff and noninfected patients to COVID-19 was imperative. 

By using real-world simulation of air circulation patterns, designers were able to determine which of their proposed ventilation layouts would be the most effective. 

Airlines and airports can employ the same simulation technology to help airlines and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) establish how to minimize the dispersal of contaminants, based on different cabin passenger layouts and traffic patterns in airports. (For an example, see this video.) Airlines can efficiently simulate airflow and virus diffusion patterns in an aircraft cabin and work with a virtual model to redesign and test safety procedures. By creating high-rendering videos to show how their procedures work, they can communicate effectively with all stakeholders and increase passenger confidence. (My company, Dassault Systèmes, offers solutions that address several of these issues, including our Keep Them Operating and Passenger Experience solutions.)

Longer term, aviation’s OEMs may also choose to structurally modify the cabin itself to enhance onboard safety. But this action would take longer to implement, since the Federal Aviation Administration would have to certify any such changes, as was the case following 9/11, when OEMs upgraded cockpit doors to make them virtually impenetrable.

Another area of great uncertainty is the extent to which social distancing will be required in airports, including security queues—what tests will be required, and how will they be administered. This is a commercial issue for both airports and airlines, since retail outlets provide a lucrative source of revenue for airport operators, which helps reduce the charges made to airlines, according to Karen Dee, CEO of the Airport Operators Association.

Airports can use the same technology to create simulated models that help them optimize passenger flow and test the effectiveness of safety measures and procedures. By trying out their plans in a “virtual twin” of the airport first, they can optimize resources and minimize disruption when implementing those plans. Crucially, they can also create videos to demonstrate to workers and passengers that the environment is safe. (For an example of such a simulation, see this video.)

In the “new normal” that follows the pandemic, passenger safety needs to be built in at every stage, from design to departure and flight. And the steps that are taken to ensure passenger safety must be clearly articulated to give people assurances that they will be safe when they fly. Thanks to the combined efforts of companies across the aerospace ecosystem, that end-to-end approach is already in place. Now it’s time to act.

David Ziegler is the vice president of aerospace and defense at Dassault Systèmes. 

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