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28 July 2023

Is there a limit to the growth of air transport? A spotlight on the 2023 Paris Air Forum

France’s prime aviation event, the Paris Air Forum (PAF) took place Friday, June 16, 2023 under the theme: “Together for a new take off”, and just before the Paris Bourget air show, which returned after 4 long years due to Covid-19. The first panel discussion entitled: “Is there a limit to the growth of air transport?” was moderated by Jens Flottau, Editor-in-Chief, Commercial Aviation, Aviation Week, and featured Christian Scherer, Airbus CCO; Rob Watson, Rolls Royce Aerospace President; Campbell Wilson, Air India CEO & MD; Sir Tim Clark, Emirates President; and Willie Walsh, IATA DG.

The participants agreed that the industry should not hit the brakes on growth. It has the capacity to address increasing demand and the CO2 emissions challenge thanks to technology, and other levers of the Fly Net Zero by 2050 strategy.

Christian Scherer confirmed Airbus currently is not working on a new airplane program. Aviation needs to play with the cards it has today, particularly fuel consumption. 75% of the current fleet worldwide still features old technology engines. Replacing these by the current generation aircraft would greatly help the industry in its quest to reduce its carbon footprint and its costs. The Airbus CCO also pointed to huge inefficiencies in Air Traffic Management (ATM), largely politically driven, as well as focusing on Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF).

Rob Watson highlighted the size of the environmental challenge, but referred to the opportunities ahead, including producing smaller engines and developing e-fuels, which France could benefit from greatly. The Rolls Royce Aerospace President confirmed the technology is there, but that Governments need to step up in the decarbonization efforts through investment and incentivization. Any project to build new equipment requires 10 years but can only materialize through collaboration with Governments.

Campbell Wilson, Air India’s CEO & MD, was asked if he had the best or worst job in Aviation. He provided insights on his reality, centering his comments around India’s condition as a developing country, very different from France and its preoccupations. The increasing population numbers signifies there is a lot of room for growth, especially domestically, not just for Air India, but also the other industry players, and a heavy need for infrastructure. India has the largest population worldwide, the 5th largest economy and the 3rd aviation market, but the airline industry is still not fully liberalized. Air India itself has only recently been privatized, and recruitment is also proving to be a challenge. Needless to say, the potential is huge.

Sir Tim Clark, Emirates President, insisted technology is key to growth. Engines, for example, will require less fuel and therefore contribute to reducing CO2 emissions. Hydrogen, a hot topic, represents a great solution but will not be  viable by 2030. The Emirates President criticized Governments and regulators which have not taken the right decisions and cited both the Amsterdam airport flight capping and the French short-haul flights ban as examples. He expressed his worries these decisions start being replicated across the planet, resulting in demand not being met, and soaring prices.

Willie Walsh, stated summer 2023 should outperform 2022 in traffic and growth thanks to airports and airlines’ efforts, but French strikes, specifically at Air Traffic Control level, could hamper the performance. He stressed supply chain issues including maintenance and spare parts, as limiting airlines, and the current demand exceeding capacity. Though frustrating for the industry, he did not foresee any significant change to the status quo. The IATA DG also shared his negative experience with rail coming to Paris, with a 25-minute delay, a Wi-Fi connection down and overall levels of service he jokingly referred to as “not nearly as good as those experienced onboard a Ryanair flight”, all the while praising the value of aviation for the world and highlighting the fact the industry would reach its ambitious goals.

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Willie Walsh, IATA DG at the Paris Air Forum, 16 June 2023

The 2023 Paris Air Forum took place at a time where the importance of aviation is more than ever under the spotlight, not only due to the Paris Le Bourget Air Show, but ahead of two major events taking place in the country. This autumn, France will host the 2023 Rugby World Cup, which will attract hundreds of thousands of spectators. The sporting competition and the corresponding increase in air traffic will serve as a live trial as the country prepares for an event of even greater magnitude: the 2024 Summer Olympics, for which Paris will serve as host city. Considering France and Paris represent the number 1 tourist destinations (country and city) worldwide with a peak in visitor numbers during summer, the estimated 1.5 million visitors from abroad expected next year for the greatest sporting event on the planet has the potential to put even greater strain and collapse the transport ecosystem. The world will have its eyes riveted on the country, and France’s image is at stake. Infrastructure and transport as a whole will be stretched to the maximum, and the possibility of strikes, delays and cancellations represent a risk to the satisfaction of the Olympics spectators and millions of tourists who will visit France next year.

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