The global air transport system has bounced back after terrorism, wars and epidemics - to continue its inexorable growth as more and more of the world's population experiences air travel. Yet in 2017, will it face its biggest test yet with the rise of protectionism? asks TIM ROBINSON.

As we enter 2017 it is clear that the world is entering a new phase of uncertainty and change – and something that for many is without precedent in living memory. For civil aerospace this is particularly unsettling. Over the past 20 years it has shaken off 9/11, SARS, wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, high oil prices, financial crashes (1998 and 2008) and rare but high-profile aviation accidents such as MH17 and MH370 to keep growing exponentially as the expanding global middle class gets a taste for air travel.

Perhaps the best example of this has been the rise of the Gulf 'super carriers' and in particular, Emirates which, thanks to its unique geographical position, single-minded vision and political support, has tapped into this travel-hungry global middle class, that is set to double to 4.9billion by 2030 as emerging economies in China and India continue their growth.    

This insatiable demand for air travel, in turn, has supercharged airliner production lines in Toulouse, Seattle, Canada, Brazil and elsewhere – along with a vast interconnected global supply chain that touches almost every nation on Earth. Despite social media, videoconferencing and now even virtual reality – there still is no substitute for being there in person. Indeed, there well may be a correlation between social media and increased desire to travel - as networks of online friends become ever more global.  

Yet aviation now, perhaps, faces its stiffest test of all, as protectionism looms, states prioritise national interests – following the fundamental political shifts we saw in 2016 on both sides of the Atlantic. The slowing (or even reversal) of globalisation has deep implications for commercial aviation – from lower GDP growth hitting discretionary spending and tourism, to punitive tariffs or trade war, or even supranational projects such as the EU’s Single European Sky. Emirates, for example, Airbus' biggest customer for the A380 'superjumbo', last month decided to defer deliveries of 12 A380s by a year - an indication that it foresees slowing air traffic demand.   

However, it is important to remember that, even before the latest, most rapid phase of ‘globalisation’ (and which arguably for some has left them behind) – aerospace and aviation has always been a global industry – with the most skilled pilots, designers and engineers finding work outside their place of birth. Witness names like Samuel F Cody, Alexander P. de Seversky, or Bill Boeing’s first engineer, Tsu Wong. International collaboration, partnerships and business in aerospace – which knows no boundaries or limits apart from lift-drag ratios, are embedded in its DNA. Connecting people and far-away places and bringing them closer is simply what aircraft do.

As the most visible symbol of our global, interconnected modern society, mass air travel has helped power globalisation but it also means that commercial aviation arguably now has the most to lose as the world shifts into a new, more unpredictable phase.

Tim Robinson
6 January 2017

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